Review of Richard Hall (2018). The Alienated Academic. The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University.

Originally published in Postdigital Science and Education.

~ As he writes, the fourth wall is crumbling. He is sitting in his office towards the end of a winter’s day. Outside the window he hears people making promises on the pavement, cars passing like waves breaking in the distance. He sees his bookshelves reflected in the darkness of the glass. He has more books than he has years left to read.

Recent literature on English higher education has documented a number of incremental policy changes over the last four decades that have led towards the marketisation of the sector. The Browne Review (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 2010), HE White Paper (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 2016) and Higher Education and Research Act (Higher Education and Research Act 2017 have explicitly worked towards creating a system of higher education that has all the key features of marketisation.

The effects of marketisation in English higher education and elsewhere have prompted researchers to examine the changing nature of the profession, critically reflecting on the impact of metrics, performativity, debt and bureaucracy on academic work. Recently, the emphasis has been on ‘academic identity’, responding to a decline in the conditions of academic labour across the world and the instrumentalised role of universities in national economies. Despite a recent increase in union membership and an emphasis on ‘wellbeing’, contractual conditions in HE are worsening, pensions are being undermined and more academics and students are becoming sick and tired. In The Alienated Academic, Richard Hall surveys much of this literature and the general sense of estrangement and hopelessness within the higher education sector.Where Hall’s book differs from much of the literature on the marketisation of higher education and threats to professional identity, is his thoroughgoing, relentless attempt to explain what is happening at a categorical level that cuts through (i.e. intersects) the differences in professional experience in order to find what is common among us.

~ He is an academic. He sits, he reads, he experiments, he designs, he builds, he thinks, he writes, he stands, he teaches, he listens. He is an academic. He creates teaching resources, he runs projects, he writes grant applications, he attends conferences, he publishes articles and books. He attend meetings, he creates modules. He is an academic. He tutors, he mentors, he supports, he liaises, he networks, he leads, he contributes, he develops, he consults, he plans, he organises, he strategises, he collaborates, he co-ordinates, he supervises, he manages, he negotiates, he champions, he influences, he evaluates, he appraises, he examines, he marks, he accredits. He is a teacher, a researcher, a scholar, an entrepreneur. He is an academic. This is his work.

The alienation that Hall identifies at work goes beyond estrangement and hopelessness and is rooted, he argues, in the critical category of labour. In fact, to see the problem as marketisation, metrics or managerialism is to mistake the manifestation for the cause of our problems. Such an approach tends towards an unreflexive resistance to our own objective conditions and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. That helplessness breeds hopelessness, a recurring theme throughout Hall’s book. What is required (and this is key to the whole book) is a categorical critique of academic labour; one which perceives labour in the university through the basic critical categories of wage labour.As Hall shows, the basis for a categorical critique of labour was established by Marx in his exposition of the commodity-form. Marx regarded the historically specific relationship between the form of labour and the form of commodities as his key intellectual contribution and ‘the pivot on which a clear comprehension of political economy turns’ (Marx 1867/1996: 51). It is this pivotal theoretical insight that underpins the basis of Hall’s understanding of ‘labour’ and distinguishes his approach from a traditionally naturalised view of ‘labour’ that understands labour as the basis for an emancipatory critique of capitalism, rather than the historically specific object of critique. The specificity of capitalist labour is the form it takes as wage labour, a historically unique organisation of human activity mediated by value. Its emancipated opposite is, according to Marx and others since, a form of productive activity that is ‘directly social’.

~ From each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs.

The Alienated Academic is structured in three parts over nine densely written and heavily referenced chapters. It covers a lot of ground in 270 pages, drawing widely from contemporary Marxist theory as well as an extensive engagement with Marx’s original work. It provides a useful survey of the concept of alienation and argues for the continuing and contemporary relevance of Marxist theory and its basic categories of labour, value, the commodity, subsumption and so on. What is likely to make this sometimes difficult book both intriguing and more broadly appealing is that Hall extends his contemporary Marxism with the literature of feminism, (de)colonialism, identity politics and intersectionality. It is a productive synthesis that is set in the context of contemporary changes in English higher education, while recognising that the alienating features of English university life can be found across the world.For these reasons, this is a unique and ground-breaking monograph in the field of critical university studies.

~ When he writes, he forgets to stand. He forgets to drink. At night, his body aches.

A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of Academic Labour

The following paper abstract has been accepted for the Academic Identities conference 2014. I will be co-presenting with Prof. Richard Hall (De Montfort).

In this paper we analyse ‘academic labour’ using categories developed by Marx in his critique of political economy. In doing so, we return to Marx to help understand the work of academics as productive living labour subsumed by the capitalist mode of production. In elaborating our own position, we are critical of two common approaches to the study of academic labour, especially as they emerge from inside analyses of ‘virtual labour’ or ‘digital work’ (Fuchs and Sevignani, 2013; Newfield, 2010; Roggero, 2011).

First, we are critical of efforts to define the nature of our work as ‘immaterial labour’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000; Peters and Bulut, 2011; Scholtz, 2013) and argue that this category is an unhelpful and unnecessary diversion from the analytical power of Marx’s social theory and method. The discourse around ‘immaterial labour’ raised by the Autonomist or Operaismo tradition is thought-provoking, but ultimately adds little to a critical theory of commodity production as the basis of capitalist social relations (Postone, 1993; Sohn-Rethel, 1978). In fact they tend to overstate network-centrism and its concomitant disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape our objective social reality (Robinson, 2004).

Second, we are cautious of an approach which focuses on the digital content of academic labour (Noble, 2002; Weller, 2012) to the neglect of both its form and the organising principles under which it is subsumed (Camfield, 2007). Understandably, academics have a tendency to reify their own labour such that it becomes something that they struggle for, rather than against. However, repeatedly adopting this approach can only lead to a sense of helplessness (Postone, 2006). If, rather, we focus our critique on the form and organising principles of labour, we find that it shares the same general qualities whether it is academic or not. Thus, it is revealed as commodity-producing, with both concrete and abstract forms. By remaining focused on the form of labour, rather than its content, we can only critique it rather than reify it.

This then has implications for our understanding of the relationships between academics and virtual work, the ways in which technologies are used to organise academic labour digitally, and struggles to overcome such labour. It is our approach to conceive of ‘academic labour’ in both its concrete and abstract forms and in relation to a range of techniques and technologies. The purpose of this is to unite all workers in solidarity against labour (Krisis-Group, 1999), rather than against each other in a competitive labour market.


Camfield, D. (2007) The Multitude and the Kangaroo: A Critique of Hardt and Negri’s Theory of Immaterial Labour. Historical Materialism 15: 21-52.

Fuchs, C. and Sevignani, S. (2013) What Is Digital Labour? What Is Digital Work? What’s their Difference? And Why Do These Questions Matter for Understanding Social Media?, tripleC, 11(2) 237-292.

Hardt, M. and Negri, T. (2000) Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Krisis-Group (1999) Manifesto against labour. Krisis.

Newfield, C. 2010. The structure and silence of Cognitariat. EduFactory webjournal 0: 10-26.

Noble, David F. (2002) Digital Diploma Mills. The Automation of Higher Education. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Peters, Michael A. and Bulut. E. (2011) Cognitive Capitalism, Education and Digital Labor. New York: Peter Lang.

Postone, M. (1993) Time, Labor and Social Domination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Postone, M. (2006) History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism, Public Culture, 18(1).

Robinson, W.I. (2004) A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World. Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press.

Roggero, G. (2011) The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Scholtz, T. (2013) Digital Labour. The Internet as Playground and Factory. New York: Routledge.

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

Weller, M. (2011) The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice. London: Bloomsbury.