Special Issue of Workplace Journal on ‘Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor’

Karen Gregory and I have edited a special issue of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, which focuses on the contribution that Marx and Engels’ work can make to the critical study of academic labour. This is also something I explored in my earlier article for Workplace, ‘Writing about academic labor‘. In addition to editing the issue, Karen and I contributed an extended, introductory article and Karen took the opportunity to interview Stanley Aronowitz, who was also interviewed in 1998 for the first issue of Workplace.

The Call for Papers was first announced here in December 2014 and I’d like to thank the authors for their contributions (and patience), as well as Karen, who has been a pleasure to work with, and Stephen Petrina, the general editor of Workplace, for his encouragement and support. Here’s the Table of Contents:


Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor PDF
Karen Lynn Gregory, Joss Winn
Towards an Orthodox Marxian Reading of Subsumption(s) of Academic Labour under Capital PDF
Krystian Szadkowski
Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety PDF
Richard Hall, Kate Bowles
Taxi Professors: Academic Labour in Chile, a Critical-Practical Response to the Politics of Worker Identity PDF
Elisabeth Simbürger, Mike Neary
Marxism and Open Access in the Humanities: Turning Academic Labor against Itself PDF
David Golumbia
Labour in the Academic Borderlands: Unveiling the Tyranny of Neoliberal Policies PDF
Antonia Darder, Tom G. Griffiths


Jobless Higher Ed: Revisited, An Interview with Stanley Aronowitz PDF
Stanley Aronowitz, Karen Lynn Gregory

Against Academic Identity

Mike Neary and I have a short article published in the ‘Points for Debate’ section of the Higher Education Research and Development journal. We were invited to write it following our contributions at the Academic Identities conference in Durham, 2014. It looks like the article is Open Access, but if that changes, 50 copies are available for download from the publisher’s website and here’s the pre-print.

Against academic identity

‘Academic identity’ is a key issue for debates about the professionalisation of university teaching and research, as well as the meaning and purpose of higher education. However, the concept of ‘academic identity’ is not adequate to the critical task for which it is utilised as it fails to deal with the real nature of work in capitalist society. It is important to move on from the mystifying and reified politics of identity and seek to understand academic life so that its alienated forms can be transformed. This can be done by grasping the essential aspects of capitalist work in both its abstract and concrete forms, as well as the historical and social processes out of which academic labour has emerged.

The interest among the academic community in academic identity reflects a broader concern with the nature of academic work. This has been a preoccupation of researchers of higher education who have examined the changing nature of the profession (Tight 2000; Fitzgerald, White & Gunter, 2012), the impact of policy and bureaucracy on academic work (Slaughter & Leslie, 1999), and the politics of the workplace (Martin, 1998). Recently, the emphasis has been on identity and what it subjectively means to be an academic (Barcan, 2013) responding to a decline in the conditions of academic labour across the world and the increasingly instrumentalised role of higher education in national economies (Brown & Carasso, 2013). Yet, despite repeated calls for increased unionisation (Krause et. al., 2008), individual autonomy is decreasing (Hall, 2013), contractual conditions are worsening (UCU, 2013), individual mental health issues are rising (Kinman & Wray, 2013) and academic work is being intensified (Gill, 2009).

This research into academic work and identity has helped illuminate the crisis at the heart of academic life, yet it does not get beyond a sense of powerlessness and anxiety. For example, Ball (2003) offers a perceptive and emotive account of life in the neoliberal university yet stops short at offering an adequate theory of academic work and identity. Ultimately, Ball’s account lacks explanatory and emancipatory power while the forces that shape academic life remain a mystery (Winn, 2014). This limitation is not unique to sociologists of education. In general, the last few decades of critical thinking in the social sciences have privileged questions of identity (race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender) to the neglect of what we regard as more fundamental categories of critique, including that of labour and, as such, represent “an expression of a deep and fundamental helplessness, conceptually as well as politically” (Postone, 2006, p. 102).

An adequate, explanatory theory of academic life in the neoliberal university must begin from Marx’s negative critique of labour in capitalist societies. The focus on the principle of negativity is key to this analysis (Noys, 2010), operating against the notion of difference and the affirmation of a multiplicity of identities. The positive attitude towards the concept of the Other which emerges from the celebration of difference is a hallmark of contemporary critical social theory, e.g., feminism, black studies, ethnicity, Queer and various other types of post-structural subjectivities. The key issue should be not a celebration of how different we are but, rather, what forces us to be different: classified within a pre-determined paradigm of capitalist domination. Holloway, Matamoros & Tischler (2009) argue that identity thinking leads to the politics of reconciliation and adaptation (which falls to escape its liberal formulations), while negativity leads to the politics of refusal to be dominated, or “the movement of endless revolt” (2009, p. 7) or class struggle. Not identity, but non-identity.

The basis for a negative critique of identity was established by Marx in his exposition of the commodity-form. Labour in capitalism is defined by having a simultaneously concrete and homogenous, abstract social form, which is expressed as its product, the commodity, which has a corresponding concrete use-value and abstract exchange-value. Marx regarded this historically specific relationship between the form of labour and the form of commodities as “the pivot on which a clear comprehension of political economy turns.” (Marx, 1996, p. 51). Starting from this discovery, which is fundamental to an understanding of capitalism in general, academic labour has both a concrete and abstract character reflected in the concept of ‘value’ that mediates the exchange of commodities and the social division of capitalist work.

This theoretical approach does not seek to provide a critique of academic life from the standpoint of labour but, rather, through a negative critique of labour (Postone, 1993). Taking this approach, both academic identity and academic labour are treated as reified concepts, or “real abstractions” (Sohn-Rethel, 1978, p. 20) to be overcome, transcended and indeed ‘abolished’ (aufhebung), theoretically and practically.

There is a need to theorise, imagine and develop new forms of social institutions for higher education based not on the production and mediation of value (the substance of which is homogenous, abstract labour) but on a new form of social wealth defined by an abundance or excess of knowledge, rather than its imposed scarcity in the form of value (Neary & Hagyard, 2010).

To assist this practical, transitional work, inspiration can be drawn from the worldwide tradition of worker co-operatives – an historic organisational form that has always sought to overcome the imposition of wage labour and establish a form of social property or a ‘commons’ that is democratically governed. We have been working with other academics, students, and members of our local community on such a project for co-operative higher education since 2010 (http://socialsciencecentre.org.uk). We are continually encouraged by the responses we receive from colleagues who are struggling to perceive academic life beyond the neoliberal university. As we conceive it, a ‘co-operative university’ is not simply a form of resistance against what the university has become but, rather, it is a dialectical response which recognises that the conditions for a new social form of higher education are already being produced both inside and outside the university by the only productive and creative intellectual force that exists in society, described by Marx as the “general intellect” or the “social brain” (Marx, 1993, p. 694). In capitalist society, the power of this social intellect is captured as science and technology and turned against its immediate producers (Winn, 2013); in communist society, this process would be re-constituted as a form of “mass intellectuality” and be appropriated for the benefit of the social and the natural world.


Ball, S. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215–228.

Barcan, R (2013). Academic life and labour in the new university: Hope and other choices. England & USA: Ashgate Publishing.

Brown, R. & Carasso, H. (2013). Everything for sale? The marketisation of UK higher education. London: Routledge.

Fitzgerald, T., White, J. & Gunter, H. (2012). Hard labour? Academic work and the changing landscape of higher education. Bingley: Emerald Books.

Gill, R. (2009). Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia. In R. Flood & R. Gill, R. (Eds.), Secrecy and silence in the research process: Feminist reflections (pp. 228-244), London: Routledge.

Hall, R. (2013). Educational technology and the enclosure of academic labour inside public higher education. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 11(3), 52–82.

Holloway, J., Matamoros, F. & Tischler, S. (Eds.) (2009). Negativity and revolution: Adorno and political activism. London: Pluto Press.

Kinman, G. & Wray, S. (2013). Higher stress: A survey of stress and well-being among staff in higher education. University and College Union (UCU). Retrieved 1st December 2014 from http://www.ucu.org.uk/media/pdf/4/5/HE_stress_report_July_2013.pdf

Krause, M., Nolan, M., Palm, M. & Ross, A. (2008). The university against itself: The NYU strike and the future of the academic workplace. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Martin, R. (1998). Chalk lines: The politics of work in the managed university. Durham: Duke University Press.

Marx, K. (1996). Capital, Volume 1, Marx and Engels’ collected works, Vol. 35. London: Lawrence and Wishart Ltd.

Neary, M. & Hagyard, A. (2010). Pedagogy of excess: An alternative political economy of student life. In M. Molesworth, R. Scullion & and E. Nixon (Eds.), The marketisation of higher education and the student as consumer. London: Routledge.

Noys, B. (2010). The persistence of the negative: A critique of contemporary continental theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Postone, M. (1993). Time, labour and social domination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Postone, M. (2006). History and helplessness: Mass mobilization and contemporary forms of anticapitalism. Public Culture, 18(1), 93–110.

Slaughter, S. & Leslie, L. (1999). Academic capitalism: Politics, policies and the entrepreneurial university. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Sohn-Rethel, A. (1978). Intellectual and manual labour. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Tight, M. (2000). Academic work and life: What it is to be an academic, and how this is changing. London: Elsevier.

University and College Union (UCU) (2013). Over half of universities and colleges use lecturers on zero hours contracts. News 5th September. Retrieved on 1st December 2014 from http://www.ucu.org.uk/6749

Winn, J. (2013). Hacking in the university: Contesting the valorisation of academic labour. Triple C: Communication, capitalism and critique, 11(2), 486–503.

Winn, J. (2014). Writing about academic labor. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, 25, 1–15.

From research student to academic: thinking about and preparing for academic work

At the request of students, I’m running a session at our doctoral study school next week on the ‘transition’ (that makes it sound smoother than it actually is) from doctoral student to an academic career. It’s allowed me to read a number of articles, reports and guides that are essentially talking about academic labour.

Below is some reading I’ve suggested to students and would recommend to anyone thinking about an academic career or giving advice to those thinking about such a career. In addition to discussing the readings, we will of course be talking about writing CVs, completing job applications, how to read a job description and preparing for interviews. In my session, I wanted to go beyond the standard ‘careers advice’ and ‘surgery’, and use research and the writings of academics to inform our understanding of academic life.

Personally, I find there’s a lot to like about the job, but the research and individual accounts show that increasingly it’s an intensive, extensive, and sometimes harmful career to pursue. I see and have felt that, too. Structurally, the trajectory of academic work and life will be very difficult to change, (although I’m working on it), but as the Hortensii group make clear, there are ways that we can be more generous and kind to doctoral students and to colleagues; especially to the many individuals already living insecure and highly mobile lives.

I have collected a lot more than this, so if you’re also faced with having to discuss or research this, get in touch and I’ll send you what I have.

The co-operative university: Labour, property and pedagogy

I begin this article by discussing the recent work of academics and activists to identify the advan- tages and issues relating to co-operative forms of higher education, and then focus on the ‘worker co-operative’ organisational form and its applicability and suitability to the governance of and practices within higher educational institutions. Finally, I align the values and principles of worker co-ops with the critical pedagogic framework of ‘Student as Producer’. Throughout I employ the work of Karl Marx to theorise the role of labour and property in a ‘co-operative university’, drawing particularly on later Marxist writers who argue that Marx’s labour theory of value should be understood as a critique of labour under capitalism, rather than one developed from the standpoint of labour.

You can download this article from the journal, Power and Education.

A pre-print version of this article is available from the University of Lincoln research repository.

An earlier and expanded version of this paper given at the ‘Governing Academic Life’ conference is also available from the University of Lincoln research repository.

Call for Papers: Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor

UPDATE 02/02/15

We’ve received and accepted some excellent responses to this CfP but we’re hoping for more. Consequently, the deadline for abstracts has been extended until the 1st March. All other dates remain the same.

If you’re thinking of submitting an abstract please note that we’re specifically looking for “…papers that acknowledge the foundational work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for labor theory and engage closely and critically with the critique of political economy.”

Where we’ve had to decline a submission it’s because the author has not made clear how they intend to engage with Marx and Engels’ work at the level that we’re seeking for this special issue. If in doubt, feel free to get in touch. Thank you.


Karen Gregory and I will be guest editors for a special issue of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor. Here’s the Call for Papers [download for printing]:

Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor

Special Issue of Workplace
Guest Editors: Karen Gregory & Joss Winn

Articles in Workplace have repeatedly called for increased collective organisation in opposition to a disturbing trajectory: individual autonomy is decreasing, contractual conditions are worsening, individual mental health issues are rising, and academic work is being intensified. Despite our theoretical advances and concerted practical efforts to resist these conditions, the gains of the 20th century labor movement are diminishing and the history of the university appears to be on a determinate course. To date, this course is often spoken of in the language of “crisis.”

While crisis may indeed point us toward the contemporary social experience of work and study within the university, we suggest that there is one response to the transformation of the university that has yet to be adequately explored: A thoroughgoing and reflexive critique of academic labor and its ensuing forms of value. By this, we mean a negative critique of academic labor and its role in the political economy of capitalism; one which focuses on understanding the basic character of ‘labor’ in capitalism as a historically specific social form. Beyond the framework of crisis, what productive, definite social relations are actively resituating the university and its labor within the demands, proliferations, and contradictions of capital?

We aim to produce a negative critique of academic labor that not only makes transparent these social relations, but repositions academic labor within a new conversation of possibility.

We are calling for papers that acknowledge the foundational work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for labor theory and engage closely and critically with the critique of political economy. Marx regarded his discovery of the dual character of labor in capitalism (i.e. concrete and abstract) as one of his most important achievements and “the pivot on which a clear comprehension of political economy turns.” With this in mind, we seek contributions that employ Marx’s and Engels’ critical categories of labor, value, the commodity, capital, etc. in reflexive ways which illuminate the role and character of academic labor today and how its existing form might be, according to Marx, abolished, transcended and overcome (aufheben).


  1. A variety of forms and approaches, demonstrating a close engagement with Marx’s theory and method: Theoretical critiques, case studies, historical analyses, (auto-)ethnographies, essays, and narratives are all welcome. Contributors from all academic disciplines are encouraged.
  2. Any reasonable length will be considered. Where appropriate they should adopt a consistent style (e.g. Chicago, Harvard, MLA, APA).
  3. Will be Refereed.
  4. Contributions and questions should be sent to:

Joss Winn (jwinn@lincoln.ac.uk) and Karen Gregory (kgregory@ccny.cuny.edu)

Publication timetable

  • Fully referenced ABSTRACTS by 1st February 2015
  • Authors notified by 1st March 2015
  • Deadline for full contributions: 1st September 2015
  • Authors notified of initial reviews by 1st November 2015
  • Revised papers due: 10th January 2016
  • Publication date: March 2016.

Possible themes that contributions may address include, but are not limited to:

The Promise of Autonomy and The Nature of Academic “Time”The Laboring “Academic” Body

Technology and Circuits of Value Production

Managerial Labor and Productions of Surplus

Markets of Value: Debt, Data, and Student Production

The Emotional Labor of Restructuring: Alt-Ac Careers and Contingent Labor

The Labor of Solidarity and the Future of Organization

Learning to Labor: Structures of Academic Authority and Reproduction

Teaching, Learning, and the Commodity-Form

The Business of Higher Education and Fictitious Capital

The Pedagogical Labor of Anti-RacismProduction and Consumption: The Academic Labor of Students

The Division of Labor In Higher Education

Hidden Abodes of Academic Production

The Formal and Real Subsumption of the University

Alienation, Abstraction and Labor Inside the University

Gender, Race, and Academic Wages

New Geographies of Academic Labor and Academic Markets

The University, the State and Money: Forms of the Capital Relation

New Critical Historical Approaches to the Study of Academic Labor

About the Editors:

Karen Gregory

kgregory@ccny.cuny.edu         @claudikincaid

Karen Gregory is lecturer in Sociology at the Center for Worker Education/Division of Interdisciplinary Studies at the City College of New York, where she heads the CCNY City Lab. She is an ethnographer and theory-building scholar whose research focuses on the entanglement of contemporary spirituality, labor precarity, and entrepreneurialism, with an emphasis on the role of the laboring body. Karen co-founded the CUNY Digital Labor Working Group and her work has been published in Women’s Studies Quarterly, Women and Performance, The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, and Contexts.

Joss Winn

jwinn@lincoln.ac.uk                 @josswinn

Joss Winn is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Lincoln, UK. His research extends broadly to a critique of the political economy of higher education. Currently, his writing and teaching is focused on the history and political economy of science and technology in higher education, its affordances for and impact on academic labor, and the way by which academics can control the means of knowledge production through co-operative and ultimately post-capitalist forms of work and democracy. His article, Writing About Academic Labor, is published in Workplace 25, 1-15.


“Labour is not a commodity”. Mapping out assumptions on ‘labour’ in the co-operative movement

I’m approaching co-operative higher education in terms of ‘labour, property, and pedagogy‘ (a revised, refereed journal paper should be published early next year). With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about a recent Call for Papers for a conference on ‘Co-operatives and the world of work‘ (2015) and recalled the World Declaration on Worker Co-operatives (2005), which references the International Co-operative Alliance’s (ICA) Statement on the Co-operative Identity (1995) and the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) 2002 recommendation on the Promotion of Co-operatives (see also the ILO’s recently published guide).

The ILO recommendation begins by recalling one of its basic principles: “Labour is not a commodity”.

This is an interesting statement, completely contrary to Marx’s theory of labour power (the capacity or potential to labour) being the essential, value-creating commodity in capitalist society. So where does the statement come from? Is it theoretically grounded or an aspiration?

The ILO recommendation on the Promotion of Co-operatives refers to the Declaration of Philadelphia (1944), which reveals that “Labour is not a commodity” is not just any old principle, but the first principle of the ILO. Wikipedia tells us that the 1944 Declaration reconstituted the ILO to become the first specialised agency of the UN, so the first agency of the UN was founded on the first principle that “labour is not a commodity”. The history of the ILO and the background to the demands of the 1944 Declaration lie, unsurprisingly, in the growth of the international labour movement itself, starting with the International Working Men’s Association in 1864.

The specific origins of the phrase “labour is not a commodity” has been explored by Paul O’Higgins (1997). He traces the phrase back to the political economist, John Kells Ingram, who gave a speech at the TUC Congress in Dublin (1880). Here’s the relevant section:

“Our views of the office of the workman must also be transformed and elevated. The way in which his position is habitually contemplated by the economists, and indeed by the public, is a very narrow, and therefore a false, one. Labour is spoken of as if it were an independent entity, separable from the personality of a workman. It is treated as a commodity, like corn or cotton-the human agent, his human needs, human nature, and human feelings, being kept almost completely out of view. Now there are, no doubt, if we carry our abstractions far enough certain resemblances between the contract of employer and employed and the sale of a commodity. But by fixing exclusive, or even predominant, attention on these, we miss the deepest and truly characteristic features of the relation of master and workman-a relation with which moral conditions are inseparably associated… By viewing labour as a commodity, we at once get rid of the moral basis on which the relation of employer and employed should stand, and make the so-called law of the market the sole regulator of that relation.”

Influenced by Ingram’s address in 1880, the American Trade Union leader, Samuel Gompers, later included the assertion in the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 (‘The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce.’) and again when Gompers worked on the drafting of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles (article 427, ‘labour should not be regarded merely as a commodity or article of commerce.’), which first established the ILO. O’Higgins documents (see pp. 229-230) how Gompers worked with Edward J. Phelan on the Treaty of Versailles. Phelan worked at the newly formed ILO from 1919 and between 1941-48 was its Director General, during which time he helped draft the Declaration of Philadelphia in 1944, ensuring that the first principle of the ILO’s new foundational document was that “labour is not a commodity”.

O’Higgins concludes his article with a neat summary which indicates the continuing power and purpose of the statement:

“I think it must be recognised that the principle that ‘Labour is not a Commodity’ represents one of the most fundamental principles of international labour law. It was first formulated by the Irishman, John Kells Ingram; first given judicial content by another Irishman, Henry Bournes Higgins, and it was preserved as part of the Constitution of the reconstituted International Labour Organisation as the result of the efforts of another Irishman, Edward J. Phelan, at Philadelphia in 1944. It can, therefore, be claimed with some justification as a major Irish contribution to international labour law. Its significance is not merely historical but remains today of vital importance. Today, the International Labour Organisation is under considerable pressure to accept the doctrine that market forces are the prime means of improving the economic lot of working people, despite all the historical evidence to the contrary. As long as the ILO does not amend the Declaration of Philadelphia, it is constitutionally committed to an opposite and contradictory doctrine. The principle that ‘Labour is not a Commodity’ is readily available for progressive use by both English courts and by the European Court of Justice.”

So, it seems clear that the principle of “labour is not a commodity” is based on Ingram’s moral assertion which was itself a reaction to the prevailing theories of political economy that placed an emphasis on the role of the market in determining the value of labour.  This was during a period of increasing growth and influence of the international labour movement and the formal recognition of trade unions as labour’s legal representation and counterpart to the incorporation of capital.  It was an attempt to humanise an understanding of labour which had been abstracted in theory and in law. It seems that Ingram wasn’t offering an alternative theory of labour, but appealing to a moral vision of the capital-relation that was not solely regulated by the ‘market’ (i.e. the production of value).

It is, as Postone would say, an assertion from the standpoint of labour, rather than a critical theory of labour.

What I find interesting though, is that despite these origins which focus on the conditions of labour rather than fundamentally question the form labour takes in capitalism, worker co-operatives do offer a self-conscious form of association that tackles both wage work and private property head on. Worker co-ops (this is not an argument for consumer co-operatives) in the UK can do this through the creation of a social or collective form of property that is neither public nor privately owned, and by drawing from the (variable) surplus they make rather than being paid a fixed wage. Although similar to wage labour or collective self-employment, worker co-ops are progressive in that their constitution attempts to dissolve the capital-labour relation within the confines of the collectively owned and democratically managed firm itself, while remaining subject to the capital-labour relation in the market.

From a Marxist perspective, worker co-ops do not overcome the dual form that capitalist labour takes (concrete and abstract labour), because they operate within the social world of capital in which individual, divided labour is reduced to a qualitatively homogenous social form. But in dialectical terms, they do represent a form and means of association between people (i.e. the working class) that is against the capital-labour relation. Not surprisingly, worker co-ops struggle to sustain themselves as safe spaces from the subsumption of capital, the wage-relation and private property, but as Egan has argued, “The potential for degeneration [of worker co-ops into capitalist firms] must be seen to lie not within the cooperative form of organisation itself, but in the contradiction between it and its capitalist environment. Degeneration is not, however, determined by this contradiction.” (82) That is, the historical specificity of capitalism might constrain worker co-ops but does not determine them. (75) The dialectic is not simply a methodological position but the movement of history itself, “being in a fluid state, in motion”. (Capital, Vol. 1, 103) Worker co-ops are a form of the negation of capital and “its inevitable destruction”. (ibid)

Worker co-operatives that operate without wage labour and private property offer an organisational form which establishes in practice that “labour is not a commodity” in a way that is more grounded than the moral basis of Ingram’s views. Of course, they do not entirely transcend capitalism but, as Marx recognised, have arisen dialectically out of the contradictions of capitalism, demonstrating that “hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form”. (Marx, 1864)

Although the World Declaration on Worker Co-operatives refers to the ILO’s recommendation which has as its first principle that “labour is not a commodity”, the Declaration asserts something much more radical: a statement on a form of labour that seeks to undermine the capital-labour relation rather than establish an improved moral understanding between capitalist and worker.