There is a particular freedom in strike action. The humanistic Marxist philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm reminds us that Marx’s critique of capitalist social relations is based on more than simply the conflict between those who have nothing to sell but their labour-power in order to survive and those who live off the profits. The biggest industrial dispute in UK higher education history pushes to the foreground the contradictory tension between the conditions of existence for academic workers – workload intensification and unpaid labour time, vast casualisation and precarity, a crisis in mental health and wellbeing – and a senior managerial glut personified by those who “drive their Bentleys and sail their yachts through the new wild west” of a sector ravaged by marketisation (Erickson, Hanna, and Walker, 2020). Fromm (1956: 95) identifies a further dimension of Marx’s critique, the “conflict between two principles of value: that between the world of things, and their amassment, and the world of life and its productivity.” Here, by productivity, Marx envisions a productivity beyond capital’s restless drive to self-expand through the exploitation of labour-power, specifically, an autonomous productivity of self and others to holistically develop: a freedom to grow intellectually, emotionally, creatively, and spiritually. On the picket line, one glimpses that freedom; in strike action, one tastes that independence. It is in stark contrast to a marketisation that has alienated academics and students from the university.
The UK university sector has come to embody what Fromm (1956: 6) calls “the pathology of normalcy”: imposing upon us, as academics and students, a social character that “internalizes external necessities” and exploits “human energy for the task” of capitalist relations (Fromm, 1985: 29). Elucidated in The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketisation in British Higher Education (Jones, 2019), the commodification of degrees has turned the academic and student relationship into one of opposition between producer and consumer while degrading the product itself. Competition between universities – based on deeply flawed quantifiable ‘quality’ and associated metrics and league tables – has driven vanity building projects hand-in-hand with a growing managerial bureaucracy fixated with maximising surpluses (along with private finance) to pay for such unstable developments (Jones, 2019). Maximisation of surplus has meant a reduction in the proportion of overall expenditure spent on academic staff (down from 57% to 54% from 2008 to 2018), employment of more and more academic staff on casualised, precarious contracts (currently representing 53% of teaching and research contracts), working academics harder and longer, and sweating the assets – buildings that might look glossy on the outside but are packed full to overflowing on the inside (Jones, 2019). All of this is in the context of a sector “now awash with cash” – higher education income increased 63% from 2008 to 2018 (Jones, 2019).
Students tragically incorporate the marketisation of higher education through the internalisation of its external necessities. The burden of the fee-paying student translates into an expectation that their time at university will provide them with ‘added value’. The pressure on students to gain a high classification in their chosen package of university, degree and modules is an exploitation of their human energy to transform themselves “into an instrument of use and exploitation for others” (Fromm, 1956: 73):
“the aim of learning is to gather as much information as possible that is mainly useful for the purposes of the market. Students are supposed to learn so many things that they have hardly time and energy left to think. Not the interest in the subjects taught or in knowledge and insight as such, but the enhanced exchange value knowledge gives is the main incentive for wanting more and better education.” (Fromm, 1985b: 44)
The effect of this on students’ sense of self is devastating: if they are “successful” in their degree classification, they are “valuable”, if they are not, they are “worthless” (Fromm, 1985b: 42). This marketisation has had a destructive pathological effect on the mental health and wellbeing of academics too. We are trapped in a treadmill to be ‘outstanding’ lecturers, researchers, and administrators, where outstanding is quantified and abstracted in a parallel universe that bears no resemblance to reality and quality, while we work amid ever-worsening conditions of existence. Take, notably, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) which ranks ‘the product’ (the commodity of the degree and the service provider of the university) by a metricised ranking of so-called teaching quality, which is quantitatively scored through the abstract measures of graduate employment outcomes and student satisfaction results, not through the quality of the real social relationship between the educator and the educated. This is alienation writ large.
Marx understands alienation as estrangement; in Fromm’s (1961: 44) words, alienation “is essentially experiencing the world and oneself passively, receptively”. Alienation in higher education, for the academic and the student, fuels a sense of loneliness and powerlessness: the “students and the content of the lectures remain strangers to each other” (Fromm, 1979: 37). The idea of the university which expands knowledge and understanding through critical frameworks and human connection – as a meaningful process in and of itself – has been lost. And in the process we have lost our freedom to independently express ourselves and grapple with the world. This loss and denial, Fromm (1961: 30) insists, is the prevention of living itself: for if we are passive and receptive, then we are “nothing”, we are effectively “dead”. This UCU strike is an act of critical resuscitation. Through the space of the picket lines and beyond, in our conversations and solidarity with striking colleagues, students and members of the public, we are strangers no more, we experience a negation of alienation: what “Marx calls “productive life”, that is, “… life creating life …”” (Fromm, 1961: 34). For those of us old enough to remember the university prior to its full exposure to destructive market forces, this space reminds us of why we originally fell in love with the university, because it gave us the imaginings of a freedom to – a freedom to be total human beings able to affirm our individuality in all of our relations to the world: “… seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, willing, [and] loving …” (Marx cited in Fromm, 1961: 38). In strike action, we hope and we love once more.
Bassi, C. (2019) “On the Death Throes of Education: Erich Fromm’s Marxist Rallying Cry for a Healthy University.” In Juergensmeyer, E, Nocella II, A J., and Seis, M (Eds.) Neoliberalism and Academic Repression (pp.31-42). Leiden: Brill Publishers.
Erickson, M., Hanna, P. and Walker, C. (2020) “The Senior Management Survey: auditing the toxic university.” LSE Blogs. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2020/02/17/the-senior-management-survey-auditing-the-toxic-university/
Fromm, E. (1956) The sane society. London: Routledge.
Fromm, E. (1961) Marx’s concept of man. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing.
Fromm, E. (1979) To have or to be? London: Abacus.
Fromm, E. (1985a) “The Social Character and Its Functions.” In R. Funk (Ed.), The Erich Fromm Reader (pp. 25-30). New Jersey: Humanities Press International.
Fromm, E. (1985b) “The marketing orientation.” In R. Funk (Ed.), The Erich Fromm Reader (pp. 39-45). New Jersey: Humanities Press International.
Jones, L. (2019) “The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketisation in British Higher Education.” Medium. https://medium.com/@drleejones/the-seven-deadly-sins-of-marketisation-in-british-higher-education-c91102a04a8f