Academic Alienation: Freeing Cognitive Labor From the Grip of Capitalism

Sitting in a coffee shop in a typical American college town, I overhear a conversation between two twenty-somethings. They lament, in educated and self-critical fashion, the failure of the academic system. Reflecting on their dedication and work ethic, they keep returning to the same question: What’s the point of four years of rigorous studying, of amassing student loans, of backbreaking night and weekend jobs, if there are almost zero job prospects out there? And, worse, what is their money going toward if not the kind of quality education they have been promised? With most classes no longer being taught by professors but by graduate students or adjunct teachers, they find the US educational system to be a scam.

The experiences of these college students speak to a contradiction at the heart of the neoliberal economy. In the age of austerity, corporations increase revenue not only in moments of economic growth, but they draw much strength from moments of economic crisis as well. Today this also applies to universities. Since 2001, American colleges have seen an unprecedented increase in enrolment of about 5.1 million, with a noticeable spike since the 2008 financial crisis. These numbers are projected to climb another 15 percent by 2025. If education can no longer be considered an investment into the future, it has at the very least become a way of deferring unemployment.

This may temporarily relieve the symptoms of economic plight for students. However, it fails to get to the root cause of the problem: the corporatization of the university. Universities today follow profit-maximizing strategies, including in labor management, that closely mirror those of private businesses. As climbing enrolment is met with a blown-up administrative apparatus, the majority of teaching jobs are shifted to temporary, part-time and contract gigs that are managed from the top. The result is not only a widening wage gap between administrative and teaching positions, but also a new form of exploitation of cognitive labor.

The college students I overheard were describing their experience in a university system in which fewer than 30 percent of professors are tenured (compared to 67 percent in the 1970s), while the remaining teaching staff consists of graduate assistants, adjunct teachers, postdocs and so on. In the students’ eyes, the quality of their education is suffering as a result. Fewer full-time teachers means more modularized courses and standardized tests, progressively narrowing curricula and accelerated rhythms of study.

At the same time, the average cost of tuition and fees has soared over the past 20 years. Today’s students really get less bang for their buck. The price for tuition, fees, room and board for undergraduate students has jumped 157 percent at private universities (to an average of $43,065 in the 2015-16 academic year) and 237 percent at public schools (where it averages $16,757 per year). With these costs significantly outpacing inflation, fewer students can afford the higher degrees they are pursuing and many live a life on credit.

What they may not realize is that the debt they amass is a claim on their future labor. Upon graduating, many will be forced to sell their labor power to the university. They will end up in the same labor pool of adjunct teachers and postdocs that they currently complain about. Their precarious economic situation today will create the conditions for their lives as precarious academic workers in the future.

In making this argument, I speak in part from personal experience. After completing my PhD in anthropology, I spent five years working in higher education, first as a postdoctoral researcher, then as an assistant professor on a three-year, non-renewable contract. I answered to the new demands that are placed on intellectual labor in an education system that values efficiency and productivity. My academic performance was assessed based on quantifiable criteria of intellectual output rather than on more personalized forms of evaluation. And I experienced cognitive labor as an extremely individuated and competitive affair, with my “products” invariably measured by how they furthered capitalist interests.

During those years, I thought of my inability to land a full-time, permanent academic position as a personal failure. This might sound odd given that I was successful in my job as a professor. Students generally gave me good reviews, I carried out research with international partners, and I actively published my work. Yet the academy slowly eroded my sense of self and left me with the feeling that I was disposable. I trace this deep sense of disaffection, which I share with many junior scholars, to the alienation that takes hold of cognitive workers in the corporate university. The failure is not a personal one; it is of a systemic nature.

The 24/7 Corporate University

In its business-savvy state of mind, the corporate university has managed to turn these negative experiences of individuation and competition into an asset. Discounting the anguishing effect it produces on academic workers, universities positively highlight the flexible nature of academic labor. This type of work, which is highly personalized and specialized — a long-term effect of Taylorism — does not necessarily require a generalized 9-to-5 employment scheme but allows the neoliberal university to operate on “flexitime.”

At first glance, this may appear to be part of a noble pursuit of granting employees non-traditional work arrangements that can accommodate individual lifestyles (transportation schedules, childcare, workout routines, etc.) to achieve a healthy work/life balance. In reality, however, flexitime often means nothing other than a non-stop work schedule. In the neoliberal knowledge economy, most academics find themselves under immense pressure to meet standardized performance criteria, focusing much of their energy on the marketability of their work. These intellectual workers don’t clock out after an 8-hour day, and many are in fact running on a 24/7 schedule. For them, there is no end to the workday and no more life outside of work.

This arrangement makes actual labor time difficult to quantify and measure, and it leaves individual workers particularly vulnerable to forms of exploitation and alienation that often go unrecognized. Marx foreshadowed this scenario decades before post-Fordist capitalism was even on the horizon. In the unpublished Sixth Chapter of Volume I of Capital, he warns us of “real subsumption” — the commodification of all human activity. By this he means not only the commodification of physical labor but also of cognitive labor, which includes social communication, interests, creativity, even emotions — all of which must now be considered labor proper.

If we were to argue that academic production is — unlike assembly-line type work — intellectually immersed and seldom monotonous, the physical pattern of this type of cognitive labor proves otherwise. All across the world, uncountable solitary figures have committed themselves to lives in front of screens, fingers moving across keyboards ceaselessly — thinking, typing, producing. For many of these academics, flexitime translates into poorly paid and destabilizing labor conditions. Given that the majority of available teaching and research jobs today are part-time, short-term or contract positions, increasing numbers of university workers piece together several jobs to make ends meet. This reflects the changed working conditions outside the university, where more and more people work longer hours for ever lower wages.

The existence of an academic underclass almost entirely at the university administration’s mercy when it comes to hiring and firing decisions is underwritten by the nature of work in the neoliberal university. Work here is precarious, competitive and individuated. In an academic temp system, the university can draw on a massive pool of under- and unemployed academic workers who are desperately waiting for a job. This gives administrators immense negotiating power, including the ability to reduce teaching hours or discontinue an existing contract on short notice because there are always others who will gladly take the job.

The corporate university advances an economic paradigm that capitalizes on the intellectual labor of a growing “academic precariat” in hitherto unprecedented ways. This leaves many academic workers feeling hopeless and exhausted. They lack not only the energy to produce critical thought that could constitute an intervention into the competitive impulse for academic excellence (read: productivity); they also experience that they can barely set aside the time to organize for their rights as workers.

Of course, academics are and always have been engaged in the defensive fight for labor rights. I have many graduate-student friends who actively participate in labor struggles despite tight research schedules and immense teaching loads, and often against university administrations that oppose them in extremely aggressive ways. Especially at private universities in the US, such as at NYU, these students have fought for years against the National Labor Relations Board decision to reverse legal precedent, according to which teaching and research assistants were to be considered employees with collective bargaining rights. However, while graduate students at NYU were finally able to reach an agreement with the university’s administration in 2013 that granted student workers the right to unionize, most labor struggles in the university remain relatively quiet and personal affairs.

Exploitation of the Soul

The fact that academics have largely been unable to resist, if not entirely desist from, the corporatization of the university cannot be chalked up to politico-economic reasons alone. It must also be attributed to the mobilization “of a pathos and the organization of a mood” that informs the capitalist system. After all, the academic quest is as much about the accumulation of economic as cultural capital. Even if precariously employed academics may be, in economic terms, best considered part of the working class, their interests are aligned with the aspiring middle and upper-middle classes. At the end of the day, academic desires — for a career, for status, or maybe for some fame — ensure that even the “lumpen professor” remains a professor, cash strapped but with a solid middle-class habitus.

The result is a seeming paradox: an impoverished workforce deeply loyal to the exploitative structures it is embedded within (mostly but not exclusively because people need money to put food on the table). This paradox is informed by a new kind of alienation that does not result from the exploitation of the body but of the soul. It is true that academic labor is not the prototype of alienated work — quaint college towns or sleek university campuses are worlds apart from conveyor-belt factories in Detroit or sweatshops in Honduras — but under post-Fordist capitalism, cognitive labor has become exploitable as well.

If industrial exploitation forced workers into submission by coercing them “to leave the soul outside of the assembly line,” cognitive exploitation is the reversal of this situation. It places the “soul at its disposal: intelligence, sensibility, creativity and language.” Cognitive capitalism thrives precisely on skills that were once considered background noise to production, or seen as curtailing productivity altogether: the ability to make dynamic, sometimes even idiosyncratic, use of knowledge, language and communicative abilities.

Processes of digitalization intensify this use of cognitive skills by constantly requiring our minds to adjust to ever faster and increasingly networked technologies. Like social-media journalism, academic work has become increasingly conditioned by speed over the past 15 years, with the expectation that intellectual output is constant, fast and multiplied immediately. The academic worker’s intellect, generalizable and adaptable, has become surplus value.

Now that the intellect is “absorbed into the domain of economic production,” cognitive labor is no longer situated outside the processes of capital, inalienable as it was once imagined to be. At the same time, the produced knowledge remains largely external to the intellectual worker. Many academics have learned to mechanically reproduce every new buzzword without having to make ethically informed, free cognitive choices. This gives their scholarship a cutting edge while leaving intact the established parameters of existing discourses (take the hype around “post-colonial theory” in anthropology, a field that continues to be dominated by white male academics).

It is possible that cognitive capitalism would look a lot less dire if it did not come accompanied by an utter lack of solidarity among academic workers. Solidarity stems from collective action, where affect meets politics. While academics share experiences of economic exploitation with other workers, the “mood” that organizes the intellectual class impedes empathy. In the university, the feelings of anguish and frustration that I have described earlier have not just led to a quiet acceptance of the fact that our intellectual products are largely subjected to capitalist interests. The inability to live happily with oneself also means that university workers rarely think of those whose economic plight they share — janitors, food service workers, clerical staff, etc. — and often fail to lend support to less securely employed colleagues.

Resisting Academic Capitalism

If intellectual labor is largely inscribed into “the machine of cognitive production,” we need to think of new ways of responding to and resisting cognitive capitalism. Organizing academic workers remains essential to the struggle against the neoliberalization of the university and the commodification of intellectual work; the academic precariat must realize that it has the choice as well as the power to fight for collective bargaining rights. Yet, in order to stand a real chance of success, those academics involved in labor struggles also need to devise ways of liberating academic knowledge from the grip of capitalism.

The nature of knowledge production has changed as a result of the corporatization of the university, and a majority of academics today act as “mass social subjects” whose lives are entirely captured by the flow of capital. With the number of publications and amount of possible grant money ranking high on the lists of search committees, and political commitments or teaching reviews ranking low, intellectual spaces are outlined narrowly by university administrators. As a result, many scholars concentrate their efforts on directly productive functions while reducing “unproductive” time to the bare minimum. Their focus is research and writing, so that activities that have no “end result” to show for — teaching preparation, office hours, mentoring of students or extracurricular activities within and outside the university — are sidelined.

The question is whether it is possible to create space for intellectual work that is not purely technical or productive. Can there still be true (or organic) intellectuals whose work is not bound up in the general process of production? Who among us are not alienated from the products of our labor and estranged from one another? Even if we do not want to go so far as to consider knowledge as “sacred” again — as intangible, inalienable and immune to commodification — intellectual labor must be reorganized. At the center should be a commitment to practices that are socially informed and anchored in political consciousness. In the work environment of the corporate university, this means that we should harness these skills — communication, creativity, affect, intellect and interests — to make politically accountable choices grounded in solidarity, instead of merely using our cognitive skills to advance our own standing within the academic hierarchy.

We can come up with ways of shifting traditional work patterns and devising new work arrangements. If several part-timers were to share an existing full-time position, for example, they could work reduced hours at full (or slightly reduced) pay and benefits. That this is realistic shows the recent decision of the German metal workers’ union IG Metall to introduce the 28-hour work week. Similarly, work time might be split up in such ways that everyone is able to find work. A few years back, a group of PhD students in a small astrophysics department told me that they had reached an unofficial agreement to coordinate their graduation dates in such a way that at any given time only one of them would be out on the job market. While this might not be possible in bigger departments with larger numbers of graduating students, it represents an attempt to share access to a market in which higher-ed jobs are extremely scarce.

Other initiatives, such as the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research (BISR), attempt to sell intellectual services outside of the academy in relatively non-alienated ways. The goal of BISR is to make scholarship accessible and education community-based, while retaining its critical edge. Even those who are lucky enough to find a full-time, maybe even long-term academic position can choose to disrupt existing work arrangements. If they are willing to critically assess the degree to which their work habits fall in line with neoliberal expectations of productivity, they can resist these expectations by dialing back the pace of their work habits through counter-practices, such as “slow teaching” or the out-crowding of syllabi. Doing this is also made easier after having gone through the collective process of recognizing themselves as workers, of unionizing, or of otherwise showing solidarity in shared vulnerabilities.

The prerequisite for this kind of transformation of the university is the recognition that cognitive labor can no longer claim to be situated outside of capitalist relations, but that intellectual work is just as exploitable as other forms of labor. This also means that, like other workers, academics can self-organize in unions, teachers’ associations, working groups and so on. It means that they can stand with fellow precarious laborers, such as food service workers or clerical staff, in concerted organizing efforts. By involving groups of different social standing, academic workers can direct their demands, simultaneously and in concrete solidarity, at the various administrative levels of a university.

Rearranging existing work patterns and actively engaging in labor struggles are ways of improving working conditions, but they are also so much more. Most critically, these practices open up spaces that are located at a “distance from capital interests.” They are ways of making room within the corporate university for activities that are not product- or profit-driven. As acts of solidarity, they create human connections, sociality and community.