Temporalities of the Neoliberal University and Resistance — Tanzil Chowdhury

The university sector is undergoing a “corona-shock doctrine“-style transformation, characterised by the culling of precarious labour, redundancies in academic and professional support staff, and the wholesale transfer of teaching to an online format (the long-term consequences of which we may not have fully grasped)—all while wage stagnation, income inequality, and pension reforms remain active sources of labour dispute in the UK higher education sector. It remains to be seen whether these transformations become the “new normal”. However, these changes are not entirely the making of the pandemic. Instead, what we are seeing is the acceleration of the neoliberal marketization of higher education. [1] Given that the pandemic has accelerated this marketization, this short piece interrogates the temporalities of the “neoliberal university”. It examines how pandemics accelerate “social murder” both within and without the institution; how Marx’s distinction between absolute and relative surplus value might helpfully illustrate the ways in which the university has absorbed such neoliberal temporalities of accumulation; and how the technique of “slowing down” has been conceptualised as a collective anti-neoliberal strategy in the university.     

Pandemic as Acceleration

The authors of an illuminating paper titled “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University[2] take aim at the neoliberal transformation of the university, particularly its isolating effects and work conditions. The authors note that the neoliberal university requires high productivity within compressed time frames. This includes ever increasing demands on academic life, such as teaching larger class sizes; competing for diminishing research monies; sitting on an excessive number of administrative committees; and above all, “timely responses … quarterly updates … [and] annual institutional review exercises and pressure on us as knowledge workers to stay on constant alert through the demands of social media”. [3] As a result, the increasing intensity (or acceleration) of work means, among other things, that our writing becomes an instrumental skill rather than an “epistemological experience”.

Similarly, the current pandemic might be understood as an example of time speeding up—characterised, in particular, by an acceleration of both actual death, and, relatedly, “social murder”. The latter term is drawn from Engels’ ethnographic study, The Condition of the Working Class in England, where it is used in connection with the way “society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet too early and unnatural death … when it [society] deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live”. [4]

We observe this acceleration of actual death in moments of neoliberal austerity. For example, in 2017, the British Medical Journal published a paper which revealed that cuts to health and social care had resulted in 120 000 excess deaths. Similarly, Covid-19 is a modality through which social murder is reproduced and accelerated by neoliberal capitalism. This brings into acute focus the woeful provisions needed to sustain life (PPE equipment, ICU units, etc.), as well as the acceleration of the mortal death of racialised populations (as revealed in a recent report by Public Health England). We thus see how variations of capitalism may differ in the speed and rhythm with which they summon social murder and actual death. Keynesian welfarism ushered in increased levels of life expectancy in England, in light of improvements to public medical infrastructure. Our current neoliberal conjuncture, however, has resulted in excess deaths due to health and social care austerity (as the British Medical Journal report illustrates). Neoliberal capitalism’s turbocharged acceleration of death runs rampant in the United Kingdom, where, at the time of writing, over 41 000 people have lost their lives due to the pandemic.

As much as the metaphor of the “ivory tower” might suggest otherwise, the academy is not a transcendental institution sitting above the temporalities of neoliberalism. The next section illustrates how these temporalities of neoliberalism, especially the temporalities of acceleration during this pandemic, are taken up by the university and their attendant correlations to actual or social murder. In this connection, I borrow briefly from Marx and his discussion of absolute and relative surplus value.

Capitalist Strategies for Surplus Value

In the early days of industrial capitalism, the working day was (and indeed continues to be) a site of struggle between capital and labour. In Capital, Marx examines the strategies available to capitalists to extract the maximum amount of surplus value from their workers in a twenty-four hour day. [5] In the rapacious pursuit of surplus value, the capitalist can extend the working day to maximise the time to exploit the worker. This form of surplus value is what Marx calls “absolute surplus value”. However, there exist obvious physical and social limits to such prolongation. Indeed, collective struggles for shorter days, as Marx details in chapter ten of Capital, summoned the state to intervene, which resulted in the early Factory Acts that circumscribed shorter working days. In the absence of an extension of the working day, the capitalist was now required to increase what Marx refers to as the “intensity” of work, i.e. the rate of exploitation, in the same fixed period of time. This could be done through a range of techniques, such as the development of new technologies that speed up the labour process or innovative regimes of disciplining workers (i.e. to produce more, take fewer breaks, improve the efficacy of their work practices, etc). The form of surplus value extracted from the worker through this means is what Marx calls “relative surplus value”. [6] Time under capitalism is therefore a class project, redefined through the labour process as a struggle between capital and labour.  In the case of the neoliberal university, the pursuit of relative surplus value has been operationalised in our work spaces with tighter and shorter deadlines for paper submissions, “timely feedback”, increased publication requirements and teaching commitments, and so forth. Relative surplus value can also be produced when new technologies are used in ways that increase the intensity of labour under capital (think of how many more meetings you have had since lockdown because of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and so on).

Importantly, the strategy of extracting relative surplus value also has the effect of accelerating social murder in higher education. While the existence of a mental health crisis in higher education among staff (and students) is well documented, this was most starkly illustrated in 2018, when Dr Malcolm Anderson, a lecturer at Cardiff University, took his own life because of excessive workloads. After his death, his wife explained that, during his appraisals, he had told his line managers that “his workload was massive and unmanageable but nothing changed“. On the day he took his life, he was responsible for over 600 students, and was reported to have been in the middle of marking 418 exam papers while preparing for a day of lectures.

There are, of course, important and interesting differences between higher education and the kinds of manufacturing industries that seek to maximise surplus value. The first is that universities in the United Kingdom are not profit-making institutions. However, a rigid distinction between public and private institutions has become untenable in light of the marketization of public services. As Wendy Brown writes in Undoing the Demos, while “neoliberal rationality disseminates market values and metrics to new spheres, this does not always take a monetary form; rather, fields, persons, and practices are economized in ways that vastly exceed literal wealth generation”. [7] What Marx’s conception of absolute and relative surplus value helps to illustrate, therefore, are the strategies available to university managers, as archetypal neoliberal entrepreneurial subjects, to exploit their workers and compel them to be more productive through the reconfiguration of their work time. It demonstrates how accumulation-driven rationalities are being absorbed into higher education, particularly through the reconstruction of the working day.   

There is, however, an added complexity here. The distinction between absolute and relative surplus value illustrates the different strategies available to capitalists in regard to the accumulation of capital. University managers may also move between the two. While the neoliberal university increases the intensity of our work (à la relative surplus value), it is clear that the vagaries and ambiguities in our work contracts are also exploited by university managers. A nine-to-five working day simply does not exist in the academic world. A 2016 report by the main lecturers trade union UCU found that we work on average around 50+ hours a week—though even that is likely a quite a conservative estimate.

Slowness as Resistance

The authors of the slow scholarship paper “emphasize the ability of slow scholarship to challenge neoliberalism’s metrics and efficiencies, and instead recalibrate and change academic culture”. “Slowing down”, as they write, involves resisting neoliberal temporal regimes by working with care, while also “caring for ourselves and others”. As universities are becoming increasingly marketized, and thus absorbing these neoliberal rationalities for extracting surplus value, “slowing down” offers university workers a counter-strategy to the neoliberal shift in higher education (a shift that is being accelerated during this pandemic). Further, these questions of the “slow university” and “slow scholarship” matter not just because the neoliberal university can kill us but also because it can accelerate social murder. The authors of the paper state that “what we ought to be seeking is not more time, as important as that is, but rather eventful time; not just more hours to work within the linear time of capitalist development, but rather conditions in which our work—individually and collectively–can become its own productive, self-positing and self-differentiating movement”. Perhaps most usefully, they offer several ways in which to operationalise such a call to arms collectively. These include “counting what others don’t”, i.e. making a wider range of work “count” in decisions about graduate student advancement, hiring, pay raises, tenure and promotion, and so on. The paper also demands “organising” to create spaces for new modes of scholarship and intentional communities, as well as institutional and structural changes that nourish and support “slow scholarship”. It also invites us to “reach for the minimum”, in an attempt to standardise the minimum number of submissions or goals necessary to achieve important benchmarks (i.e. promotion). Finally, building the “slow university” also requires deploying the feminist ethics of personal and collective care. The effects of these tactics on the temporalities of a marketized higher education sector—high productivity in compressed time frames—are clear. Approaches like “reaching for the minimum” undermine the intensity of the labour process as reconfigured by strategies for realising relative surplus value. The same is true of care, which requires colleagues to “take time” and to disrupt the logics of accelerated capitalist time in the labour process. Admittedly, such strategies could be undermined by tactics such as transferring work assignments from permanent to precarious labour, and they do require substantial organisational effort. However, the struggle over time and the working day—and thus the degree or kind of exploitation that capital can enact—is absolutely central to capitalism. The fight over the working day is a fight over the marketization of higher education.

Marx famously wrote that “moments are the elements of profit” in which capitalists seek to use every bit of time to exploit the worker with maximum intensity. In a sector that has been undergoing immense neoliberal marketization—not only through the privatisation of the university, but also through the absorption of neoliberal rationalities, including the strategies of absolute and relative surplus value—slowing down becomes the quintessential anti-neoliberal act, one that not only preserves the integrity of our work but the integrity of our bodies.

Tanzil Chowdhury is a Lecturer in Law at Queen Mary, University of London.

[1] Kathleen Lynch, “Neo-liberalism and Marketisation: The Implications for Higher Education” 5 (2006) European Educational Research Journal 1.

[2] Alison Mountz, Anne Bonds, Becky Mansfield, Jenna Loyd, Jennifer Hyndman, Margaret Walton-Roberts, Ranu Basu, Risa Whitson, Roberta Hawkins, Trina Hamilton, and Winifred Curran, “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance Through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University” 14 (2015) ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 1235.

[3] Mountz et al., “For Slow Scholarship”, 1237.

[4] Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England In 1844 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987 [1845]), 106.

[5] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990 [1867]), 340.

[6] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 429.

[7] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015), 37.