Exploitation and the Politics of Knowledge: A Commentary on Arboledas-Lérida’s Marxist Analysis of Science Communication, Part I, Justin Cruickshank

In a recent issue of Social Epistemology, Luis Arboledas-Lérida (2021) developed a Marxist analysis of the requirement universities place on science academics to use social media to promote their research findings, with this being conceptualised as an instance of the labour exploitation necessary within all forms of employment under capitalism. In this reply I agree that universities have to be understood as part of the societies they are situated within, but suggest a broader analysis to explain the exploitation occurring in the production and dissemination of knowledge … [please read below the rest of the article].

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Article Citation:

Cruickshank, Justin. 2022. “Exploitation and the Politics of Knowledge: A Commentary on Arboledas-Lérida’s Marxist Analysis of Science Communication.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (4): 12-25. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-6G5.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Editor’s Note: Justin Cruickshank’s “Exploitation and the Politics of Knowledge: A Commentary on Arboledas-Lérida’s Marxist Analysis of Science Communication” will be presented in two parts. Please find below Part I. Please refer to Part II. The PDF of the entire article is linked above in the Article Citation.

This article replies to:

❧ Arboledas-Lérida, Luis. 2022. “‘Give the Money Where it’s Due’: The Impact of Knowledge-Sharing via Social Media on the Reproduction of the Academic Labourer.” Social Epistemology 36 (2): 251-266.

Articles in this dialogue:

❦ Bacevic, Jana. 2019. “Knowing Neoliberalism.” Social Epistemology 33 (3-4): 380—392.

❦ Cruickshank, Justin. 2019. “The Feudal University in the Age of Gaming the System.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (8): 12-14.

In what follows I will outline Arboledas-Lérida’s argument, consider a broader range of problems creating exploitation in the pre-neoliberal university and then explore how neoliberalism intensifies these and undermines the conditions for collective agency to transform working practices. I will conclude by suggesting one possible way forward. The suggestion may be an unusual one, for it is inspired by an anarchist emphasis on horizontal and co-operative organisation, but makes reference to the public sphere and civil society. This is not to celebrate liberalism, but it is to note the problems faced by the neoliberal state’s hollowing out of the public sphere for collective agency and solidarity, and the potential in civil society for collective agency which can exist beyond the terms of reference set by the liberal state.

The Necessity of Exploitation in the Capitalist University

Arboledas-Lérida draws on Marx’s Critique of Political Economy to give a materialist analysis of recent developments concerning science communication. He argues that academic scientists have increasingly had to become ‘ambassadors’ for their work using digital media. Arboledas-Lérida takes issue with the concept of ‘digital labour’ which has gained currency, arguing that the many forms of work involving digital technology have nothing distinct about them, from a Marxist materialist perspective, and that consequently academic digital labour needs to focus on the ‘social attributes of labour in capitalism and not historical specific instances of this’ (2022, 252). Whereas many contemporary writers develop what he regards as an ‘idiosyncratic’ reading of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, the argument set out in his article on the impact of knowledge-sharing via social media is held to be original because it remains within an accurate reading of Marx. This leads Arboledas-Lérida to argue that:

Science communication responds to a form-determination of the capitalistic relationship of production. It is part and parcel with the antagonistic character which the capitalistic relationship lends to social production; it inheres in the capital-relation itself (2022, 253; emphasis in original).

In other words, the work undertaken by academic scientists in using digital technology to communicate their research findings directly to the public, rather than rely on intermediaries such as science journalists, is to be understood in the same way as all work is to be understood. This means understanding work in terms of its intrinsically exploitative nature under capitalism and the tension within capitalism that arises from capital needing to extract as much value as possible from labour (most of which is kept as profit), with this in turn leading to problems with the reproduction of labour: as labour has to be squeezed more intensely to get more from it, labour becomes exhausted and increasingly less able to be as productive as capital needs it to be. Academic labour power becomes ‘worn out’ by the never-ending increase in work, which now includes being trained to be effective—and continually participating—in the digital communication of the results of scientific research. In this context, the division between work and private life become even more eroded than before as academic labourers need to keep demonstrating their productivity / ‘performance’ in the highly surveilled workplace to managers. These managers, we can say, are only concerned with how the brand of the university is performing in terms of the international reputation market, driven by the rankings industry. The worker will be ‘responsibilised’ to ‘deliver’ the ‘outputs’ required, with workshops on ‘resilience’ and ‘mental health coping strategies’, whilst having to work ever longer hours for pay and pensions which may decrease significantly, with health and quality of life being destroyed as a result.

The treatment of academic scientists in terms of having to take on additional work, despite already difficult workloads, is taken to be an example of a general process intrinsic to capitalism, with academic-specific struggles having to be seen as part of a broader class-struggle against capitalist exploitation. As Arboledas-Lérida puts it:

Capital will always look for ways to subject academic workers (whose fate is shared with the entire working class) to exploitation beyond the normal rate—a similar fight will thus have to be waged time and again, irrespective of whether it concerns science communication or any other aspect of the scientific production process. Subsequently, this relatively narrow fight for a linear increase in wages must be carried on within the overarching class struggle against the undermining of the working conditions for the collective science labourer (2022, 261; emphasis in original).

I agree that work under capitalism is intrinsically exploitative and in what follows I want to explore an intersectional understanding of exploitation, which also focuses on the stratification within academic jobs between those with control over the knowledge production and dissemination process, and those with little or no control over the process.

The Feudal System of Exploitation

In an earlier article for the SERRC on higher education (Cruickshank 2019), I argued that while the rise of neoliberal political economy has been detrimental for universities, we should be wary of implicitly romanticising the non-neoliberal past. I referred to universities as having working relations that were ‘Feudal’ in the sense that there were powerful hierarchies within the academic staff (as much or more than between managers and academics then, under a more ‘collegial’ form of governance). These hierarchies were harmful because: they reproduced existing inequalities concerning class, gender and ethnicity; enabled the Feudal Lord to exploit ‘their’ underlings by, for example, taking the credit for research work undertaken by an underling with the dissemination of this via conferences and articles, making the Feudal Lord seem like the one who had contributed the most; like all hierarchical relationships requiring deference it was based on demanding an irrational—unquestioning—approach to authority that entailed repression, resentment and the reification of others; and because such Feudal relations created a patronage system where the Feudal Lords shaped knowledge production by shaping who got jobs and promotions, the problems to research and the terms of reference for the research to be undertaken. These harmful Feudal conditions within universities undermine the development of solidarity, not only because of intensely jealous and resentful Feudal Lords competing for departmental and university-wide privilege, but because of the intensely jealous and resentful competition that arises in their departmental underlings seeking access to better research resources, employment security, tenure or promotion.

While philosophers tended to construct idealised conceptions of the scientific community, those undertaking empirical work in how the production of knowledge occurred, including feminist researchers, made clear a gap between the ideal and the actuality. To some extent this is expected and the ideal may be treated as a Weberian ideal-type in the sense that it was a one sided simplification designed to pick out an important defining feature which actual behaviour tended to greater or lesser degrees to approximate to. However, a reluctance on the part of philosophers to consider social factors shaping knowledge production and dissemination resulted in the obfuscation and reproduction of unquestioned norms and conduct that reproduced hierarchies based on gender, ethnicity and class and which set the frame for research in an overly narrow way by excluding people or giving them a subordinate status in a dialogue. Research teams are shaped by social factors shaping who gets employed, who sets the terms of reference, who gets listened to and who goes on to become a Feudal Lord themselves to set up their own patronage system.

Knowledge dissemination in the form of teaching also plays a significant role in what questions are asked and who is able to address those questions, that is, it plays a significant role in how people are socialised into a discipline, what messages they get sent about whose ‘face fits’ and who is important, and in reproducing prejudices. This is now challenged by the decolonise the curriculum movement in the social sciences and humanities and feminists more broadly across all disciplines. Feminist scholars criticise epistemic injustice in knowledge dissemination in terms of whose work gets placed on a curriculum and who gets cited in research, with women who have produced important research being ignored or marginalised (on this, see for instance, Bacevic 2021).

So, while academics qua academics may be exploited as workers, given the way pay does not reflect the value for the employer created under capitalism, which is an intrinsically exploitative system, it is important to remember other forms of inequality, oppression and exploitation. In Marxist terms, the Feudal Lords would be in an ambiguous position because while they were ultimately workers, they also had significant control over resources and benefitted from the labour of others in a fashion analogous to the capitalist retaining most of the value the workers made. In a world of intersectional exploitation, the Feudal Lords would decide who got to be a producer of academic capital and how much of the value of the capital they, the Lord, would take for themselves. The Feudal Lord, while not owning the means of production in the sense of owning the university or laboratory, would own some aspects of the knowledge production and dissemination process, together with owning the futures of the underlings, making them able to profit from the hierarchy, with higher pay.

Neoliberalism, Legibility and the Public Sphere

The rise of neoliberalism has had a significant impact on higher education which, as many critics argue, has been detrimental in terms of working conditions and the dissemination of knowledge. Neoliberalism is hostile to professional autonomy and to the broader notions of the public sphere, public service and civil society. Rather than replace Feudal relations though, the Feudal system has adapted to neoliberal conditions. Top-down marketisation ‘reforms’ and subsequent increased managerialism has seen Feudalism intensify rather than be replaced by ‘transparent’ / legible ‘performance indictors’ in a ‘meritocratic’ market of ideas where individuals are assessed solely on their work and only a class of professional managers has power, not academics, however senior. Before discussing some of the impacts of neoliberalism on higher education, I will briefly outline how I define neoliberalism.

As the anarchist anthropologist James Scott (1998) argued, the modern state is defined by its drive for legibility, to extend bureaucratic control over all domains, with this applying to all modern states, from the Leninist Soviet Union to liberal states. Neoliberalism, despite the anti-statist, anti-bureaucracy and anti-interventionist rhetoric, is an elitist state project and so it is not surprising that it also seeks control via legibility, which is the hallmark of all modern states.

Early liberalism sought to protect the economic interests of the ‘individual’, meaning the white bourgeois colonial man and neoliberalism seeks to protect the economic interests of the ‘individual’, now meaning corporate capital. Neoliberal states construct and regulate markets to benefit corporations and finance capital, undermining not just organised labour but the professions, the public sector and civil society. The neoliberal state does not want any organised group to have an ability to resist its top-down imposition of market forces or audit-proxies for the price signal with marketized (and defunded) public services and nor does it want people to support or even recognise any notion of a public service promoting a public good as this clashes with the homo economicus form of consciousness it promotes (Brown 2015; Davies 2014; Harvey 2005; Holmwood 2011; Van Horn and Mirowski 2009).

The public sphere and civil society are hollowed out and securitised, meaning that: organisations such as professional bodies are weakened as professions are weakened through the defunding and increased bureaucracy imposed on public sector professionals, designed to remove autonomy and force them to adapt to state-imposed proxies for the price-signal; any notion of public service for the public good is replaced by a more marketized conception of services; citizens are encouraged to think of themselves as consumers, not members of a collective or public wanting good public services for fellow citizens; public services decline due to defunding in order to nudge people towards private provision and resentment towards public sector professionals unable to deliver a high quality service which is misperceived as professional failure not state created failure; protest is discouraged and undermined; and there is the construction, with the help of the media, of racialised moral panics and other attacks on ‘enemies within’, designed to make the population fearful and resentful towards less powerful groups and protestors, and more acquiescent to state authority, with ‘states of exception’ (Agamben 2005) helping normalise increased authoritarian politics (see: Brown, 2015; and Holmwood, 2011 on the hollowing out of the public sphere).

In the UK: the NHS is subject to multiple market ‘reforms’ and a large legibility system of performance metrics in a defunded environment; and universities (which are quasi-public sector, being private charitable institutions that receive public funding) are subject to a seemingly endless flow of government announcements, policies, legal changes, and ‘frameworks’ to measure and monitor professional activity, in a system of neoliberal legibility. The ‘non-interventionist’ neoliberal state has sought to use audit culture in lieu of the price signal in an attempt to nudge student-customers towards STEM degrees.

The Teaching Excellent and Student Outcomes Framework (or TEF) was meant to measure teaching ‘quality’ in terms of career outcomes, to nudge students to STEM and universities to increased STEM provision as higher-ranking courses could increase the student fee in line with inflation. Eventually though the subject-specific TEF was dropped and the earlier institutional-level TEF, which was controversial, produced data that is now out of date. The TEF was constructed to try to use an audit regime to re-engineer the student market in higher education and to increase market competition for STEM courses (while seeing defunding and decline in the humanities and social sciences, other than economics, accounting, business and law), the government also removed the cap on the number of students universities can recruit (the ‘student number controls’). This occurred after the tripling of the student fee for all courses and resulted in universities recruiting to cheaper-to-teach non-STEM courses to help cross-subsidise STEM courses. The unpaid student loans became part of the national debt and added significantly to this. The non-interventionist interventionist state undermined its own policies though an unintended consequence.

Neoliberals such as Hayek would lament this attempt to construct markets using audit regimes of legibility and would prefer a reliance on market forces and the price signal, but the state’s attempt to take the cap off student fees, to create a free market in fees, failed because the Liberal Democrats entered a coalition with the Conservatives and argued for a £9000 cap, having campaigned to abolish fees which were a third of that. The attempt to create such a free market had though been initiated by the Labour Government. It was this failure to impose a free market that then led to the creation of the TEF which was a massive waste of public money. Interestingly, the whole point of the TEF was destroyed before it left the Houses of Parliament, as the House of Lords severed the connection between teaching grades and fee levels, but the Government pressed on with it, in the hope that better rankings for STEM would be sufficient to nudge increased demand for STEM.

Recently the Conservative Government have talked of cutting the fee for all courses while only offering a top-up teaching grant for STEM in the hope of seeing the social sciences and humanities decline, although after years of speculation this was eventually abandoned in February 2022. Cutting universities’ incomes further when the fee is already frozen has seen university incomes decline and could result in the failure of a large public university, which would have catastrophic regional effects on employment and damaging effects on the Conservatives seeking now to ‘level up’ the regions.

Market reforms in England also saw the liberalisation of the market with it being easier for private for-profit providers to enter the education market and award their own degrees. However, for-profit providers only play a very small role in UK higher education, despite the government talking of their importance in providing skills training to disadvantaged communities. Such providers would also be unlikely to provide STEM courses given the sheer cost of these and would rely instead on teaching the professions such as law and accounting.

For the state, the ideal would be a higher education system focused mostly on STEM and vocational training with academic jobs depending on their ability to produce trained graduates who were of use to the national economy and who received high salaries. Any notion of higher education creating a critically minded and publicly engaged citizenry studying subjects not directly connected to vocational training by professionals who had autonomy is seen as a threat by the neoliberal state. The state holds that the market will serve students by undermining professional laziness and poor teaching, with competition seeing the best courses (based on training not critical thinking) beat the worst (meaning humanities and social science), but the state actually seeks to get students serving the market, by paying for their own training.

Accompanying the use of legibility as part of the politics of hollowing out, the state, in the UK, has sought increased control through securitisation, via: the expansion of the Prevent counter-extremism strategy which mandates all public sector workers, including university teaching staff and NHS doctors and nurses, to surveil those they interact with on a professional basis for any sign of ‘extremism’, which stemmed from and intensified Islamophobia; the outlawing protest which is disruptive, will come into effect when the Policing, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill passes the final stages through the Houses of Parliament and gets ‘Royal Assent’; and a number of culture wars. These state constructed culture wars, supported by the press, concern: a threat to free speech in universities; ‘biased’ approaches to teaching in schools and heritage organisations such as the National Trust (meaning approaches that discuss colonial history); and universities ‘failing’ the nation and student-customers by producing ‘usefuless’ / ‘mickey mouse’ degrees in ‘left wing’ subjects that result in graduates having a low salary and being of no use to the national economy.

Neoliberals promote deregulation as this is meant to remove bureaucratic redtape and lower taxes, to liberate people to become entrepreneurs and to ensure the market serves customers by being agile enough to provide exactly what products or services people demand at the price they demand. The reality is that wealth is polarising, public services are declining, and the state is trying to make people better serve the market by buying the training they need to ‘attract’ a job, with education reduced to a human capital investment. In this context, the state constructs enemies within, to seek support for state power and to scapegoat groups to reproduce prejudices and resentments. The state helps redistribute wealth upwards, encourages hostility to those constructed as enemies within, and engages in a system of legibility requiring bureaucratic redtape, albeit in the service of ‘market reforms’ rather than old style reformist socialism, with these reforms helping the political and capitalist elites.

While the bourgeois civil society was seen by a number of liberal thinkers as playing a key role in a stable and functional liberal society, it is undermined by the neoliberal drive to reduce as many relations as possible to market relations. This is important because while civil society was never intended to be the catalyst for radical change with, for instance, Hegel and Durkheim, in different ways, seeing it as part of an organic unity, the post-war corporatist years seeing the state controlling groups through bureaucratic integration, and the post-Soviet years seeing the west prescribe the need for former state-communist countries to develop a civil society to create a liberal culture, it nonetheless has the potential for collective and co-operative action which could be extended. The anarchist writer on social policy, Colin Ward (1973), criticised the statist-bureaucratic provision of services, because that allowed the state and capital to control groups. Instead, he argued for co-operative provision of services, with this co-operative agency building an alternative society within liberal capitalism by using a different form of consciousness to extend people’s natural sociability by creating non-marketised and non-statist / bureaucratic service provision. While Ward would, unlike Hegel and Durkheim, reject the notion of the bourgeois civil society forming part of an organic whole, we can say that the concept of a space for organisation in between the family and the market and the state opened up a space for imagining alternative forms of service provision and collective agency.

Similarly, we may mention the importance of co-operative universities which do not charge a fee, which rely on voluntary labour, and which exist to create a community of learning, based on horizontal organisation as much as possible. Given this potential space for collective agency that civil society opens up, it is not surprising that Scott argued that an active civil society was able to resist state impositions of legibility as well as, in non-liberal societies, legibility being undermined by tradition which was opaque to the state. Neoliberalism presents a threat to this by its attempt to construct, as Brown (2015), drawing on Foucault and Marx argued, a ubiquitous market rationality, where the social world is seen only in economic terms, with competition not co-operation being the ‘common-sense’ that defines all interactions from work to education and dating. Alongside bureaucratic legibility there is an attempt to refashion consciousness to evacuate any conception of a social or public good addressed by collective co-operative agency. Collective organisations using the space opened up in civil society, such as co-operative universities, can resist this.

Part II: “Exploitation and the Politics of Knowledge: A Commentary on Arboledas-Lérida’s Marxist Analysis of Science Communication.”

Author Information:

Justin Cruickshank, j.cruickshank@bham.ac.uk, University of Birmingham.


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