Friday, 16 May 2008

Alienated at work? Don't sell yourself.

Legislation since the 1990s has introduced a focus on mass education , performativity and marketisation in British Higher Education, whereby reduced public funds are allocated against student numbers and performance indicators, forcing reliance on market mechanisms to differentiate institutions based on the quality of education, which is essentially treated as a commodity.

A technocratic and instrumental view of knowledge is adopted, leading to demand on academics to constantly reinvent themselves and cultural capital as marketable commodities. In this, traditional dialogues about academic values and relevance are replaced by externally determined criteria coupled with the products of market forces.

This false belief in the power of positive external market forces to drive quality improvements in HE at a lower cost to the public purse, has created a new language of performativity for HE, the logic being that demonstrating efficiency and excellence means more students, more funding and easier expansion. However, while the decentralisation of public sector employment relations brought about increased responsibility and power for managers in HE, the degree of discretion and authority they have enjoyed is delimited by the requirement for public accountability, representing only a partial convergence of public and private sector employment relations.

The reforms nonetheless demonstrate a clear ideological commitment to neoliberal ideals and the principles of the free market and global capitalism, whereby the imperative of profit seeking market competition is allowed to dominate economic, social and political life. Accordingly, the close association of political economy and workplace relations results to be mediated by redefined managerial practices in universities.

In particular, the neoliberal value for money agenda affect how labour is controlled. Certainly, the outputs of such reforms - the rhetoric of performance management of a new HE managerial class, labour flexibility, value for money, quality assurance, productivity - have little in common with workers' interests and much more in common with notions of 'managerial capitalism'.
The impact of such tyranny on university life, and its agenda of measuring, monitoring and controlling, predictably then leads to resistance and a "daily build up of frustration and profound sense of dissatisfaction" among academics and other workers who feel the effects of macho management, increasing levels of stress and "confrontational and dictatorial management style".
In fact, one of the most significant themes to emerge in this respect, concerns the shift in power and discretion to managers in the transformation of universities from institutions of academic autonomy to management prerogative: work intensification has been accompanied by a loss of autonomy and transfer of control to managers whom many staff consider incompetent and have little respect for.

As managers assume discretion over both employment and academic issues, the commoditization of labour involves the suppression of worker values and beliefs which are assumed to be negotiable.

In an academic labour market, which treats labour as a commodity and a cost to be minimised, the worker surrenders control over his labour where both are virtually 'alienated'.
Surrendering control over one's labour then means to become alienated and to be subordinated in one's work. Academics are forced under such tyranny to surrender their capacity to work as though it is a commodity, but this means surrendering a part of themselves and their lives.
Indeed, losing control over their work, academics realise only what management want them to. Functioning as instruments or labour resources, they are alienated in several distinct ways:

  1. From their own being, as they are treated as machines of production instead of as humans;
  2. From other workers, as their labour is reduced to a commodity instead of a social relationship;
  3. From education as the product of their labour, as it is appropriated and commoditized by the employers who control it;
  4. From teaching and research as the acts of production, drained of meaning or intrinsic satisfaction.
Perhaps the most plausible explanation for why people sustain such a condition of submission to the interests of capital, is due to the problem of false consciousness;

"If there are alienating processes in the social system, they will affect the process of social production in such a way that the individual will learn "false" needs which in turn create a state of alienation. If this state of alienation is experienced sufficiently. it will be experienced as "normal". Therefore the individual will no longer experience his own alienated state. Instead he will acquire a "false consciousness" of himself and, in addition and in consequence of this, false beliefs about his social environment" (Israel, 1971).

It is in this manner, by creating and maintaining false needs, that capitalism effectively uses the rhetoric of the benefits of consumption, to control social and work relationships. This is on the basis of a perverse assumption that if people are alienated in their work, they can more easily be alienated as consumers and vice versa. In the 'modernised' neoliberal system of British HE, student indebtedness, the effort of study, long working hours and loss of academic autonomy are supposedly compensated by the promise of incentive and reward and inspired by the doctrine of individualism. Thus, accompanying the commoditization of labour is the consumerisation of university workers.

In transforming the labour of lecturers into a means-ends relationship and education into a commodity product, the HE reforms and the increased discretion they have accorded to managers to determine employment issues in line with neoliberal and capitalist ideals, can only lead to greater alienation of academic employees and a greater desire for control over what is treated increasingly by HE employers as a profitable and exploitable workforce.

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