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

The Feudal University in Neoliberal Times

The rise of neoliberalism has meant declining resources from the state and intensified competition. As a consequence of this: casualisation has increased to increase profits or surplus; pressure on staff to ensure the university brand competes well in the rankings game has intensified, with this entailing vast systems of institution-specific legibility constantly to monitor staff performance and student-customer ‘satisfaction’ to pre-empt the results of state-imposed legibility systems; and the system of Feudal Lords and patronage have remained in place because the university wants to piggy back the success of its brand in the rankings game on their success in gaining grants, producing large numbers of publications, doing work more likely recognised by the state, employers or other organisations as useful, attracting graduate students, and engaging in promotional work to increase the brand of the academic and the university … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: Dennis Jarvis via Flickr / Creative Commons

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 II. Please refer to Part I. 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.

As Täuber and Mahmoudi (2022) argue, bullying can be a career tool in competition for departmental power, with what I term Feudal Lords, selecting those they want to continue their work and undermining or removing very capable people who would, ceteris paribus, rise up the ranks and become seen as a threat, through various forms of bullying, including mobbing. In an insecure, precarious and highly surveilled workplace, the Feudal Lords can draw on audit culture performance metrics to seek technocratic legitimation for labelling someone as incapable. While the performance metrics have an aura of objectivity, the collection and interpretation of data, together with the working conditions people are given, can all work to undermine or destroy the careers of promising scientists who the Feudal Lord regards as a threat. In this process, historical inequalities, especially those of gender, come into play.

With the rise of neoliberalism, academics are expected to become ‘brands’ and social media plays an important role in this. Just as students are encouraged to become their own brands on social media sites like LinkedIn to ‘attract’ ‘investors’ (employers), so academics are encouraged to become a brand so that their research has more reach and they can compete more effectively against competitor academics for promotions (given the citations) or jobs (given their web reputation). Even without the pressure from an employer on academics to become web-ambassadors of their work, academics would feel pressure to engage in such activities, because others may ‘steal a march’ on them in the neoliberal-Feudal highly competitive environment for resources, status, power and continued employment security (see Bacevic, 2019 on the pressure to be a neoliberal academic). Given this, one may accept that authors such as Brown (2015) are correct to talk not just of formal demands, but of the informal culture that influences people by telling them constantly about the need to be an individual brand seeking self-interest in a zero-sum competition with others. Similarly, Rosalind Gill in her famous chapter ‘Breaking the Silence: The Hidden Injuries of Neo-Liberal Academia’ (2009), drew on Foucault to discuss how academics had to internalise the neoliberal norms promoted in audit culture and discipline themselves to work constantly to meet never ending targets while under constant surveillance. On paper, one may have set terms of work, but in practice, the neoliberal culture and the system of legibility used to ‘see’ academic performance used by managers trying to ensure good results with rankings and any state metrics, resulted in any meaningful notion of a home—work split being impossible. Academics became ‘responsibilised’ to engage in overwork and, with the rise of social media, this includes the task self-promotion to the world via social media and not just the university where one is employed. To be clear, I am not a Foucaultian, but the notion of an informal culture having a damaging impact on people as well as formal work requirements being harmful, is an important one.

The ongoing industrial action in the UK over the 20% drop in the value of academics’ pay over the last 10 years, the massive cut to pensions (in the USS scheme) accrued after April 2022, unmanageable workloads, mass casualisation and the gender pay gap, has seen ongoing strikes and calls for ‘action short of a strike’ (or ‘working to rule’). The latter means stopping unpaid work which academia relies on such as low paid external examining, working in the evening and weekends to try and meet research targets for internal proxies for the REF, or marking, etc. Universities have responded by threating to cut academics’ salaries by 50% or 100% for not fulfilling their work obligations. This highlights the hyper-exploitation of academics, especially in the UK where managers are threatening to remove people’s pay if they only do the work they are paid for. Academia relies on unpaid labour which massively intensifies the exploitative nature of knowledge production and dissemination and academics have gone along with this out of a culture of overwork where any time with the family is seen as a loss of unpaid productive work-time which one needs to engage in to show the value of one’s personal brand to managers.

With the rise of neoliberal legibility, one has to work well beyond ‘the contract’ to meet the demands of the system of legibility and self-promotion via social media becomes not only an expectation but a way for an academic to seek a spurious sense of safety and satisfaction. One may, especially with sufficient online attention, come to invest emotionally in one’s own brand. Given that social media is designed to be addictive, the recognition gained may well result in a desire to spend as much time as possible doing self-promotion, to gain recognition and feel more secure. Social media appears to be an escape for academics, whatever their job requirements and discipline, because creating a social media persona can feel like escaping into a private bubble where one’s constructed identity received continual validation from positive feedback. Just as stress is privatised, with academics feeling isolated and incapable, so too is escape from stress privatised, with academics constructing an online bubble and relying on constant positive attention. There is the problem though that as others continually promote themselves too, the sense of imposter syndrome which occurs in academics could well intensify, as everyone engages in shouting the loudest. Further, the need for constant online validation can itself become a source of stress and depression.

Those academics in the social sciences and humanities using social media may also post on social and political topics as well as on their specific research. This can create problems with echo chambers just reinforcing opinions, trolling and doxxing by far right social media posters, as well as the risk of a pile-on from those on the left if someone says something that goes against a consensus. Mark Fisher, in a controversial essay called ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’ (2013), criticised left wing commentators (which included, but which was broader than, academics) who ignored class to focus only on identity-politics and who would start or join ‘Twitterstorms’ against an individual, previously seen as progressive, for saying something taken to be objectionable. Fisher was not against criticism, holding people to account and discussion, but against the ‘openly savage’ nature of these storms and the frightening prospect that one may fall foul of a group and receive thousands of abusive messages. Indeed, given that a few messages get a critical point across, having people pile on afterwards can only be to either deliberately increase psychological damage of the target or to get positive feedback for one’s own online persona in a constant need to get such feedback, with any psychological damage to the target being not considered or considered justified as a secondary effect. Academics entering social media to establish a bubble of self-identity and expression may find this is potentially risky or at least a source of stress given the need constantly to garner positive feedback and avoid abuse.

However, in a recent article on a scandal at Harvard University, Jacobs (2022) argues that social media helped undermine an abusive and corrupt form of quite extreme pan-disciplinary Feudalism. As Jacobs puts it:

We are witnessing older academic hierarchies, which are almost unabashedly feudal and based on ideas of apprenticeship, come aground onto the escalating austerity in the neoliberal university. As a young academic—emboldened by the actions of the three brave Harvard graduate students who filed the lawsuit (Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava)—told me this week: the liberal managerialism that attempted to contain the abuses of feudal academia is increasingly delegitimized among younger generations of academics, who turn to social media and labor organizing to try to shift the balance of power.

While I would argue that neoliberalism at least supports Feudalism, with defunding increasing precarity and thus the need to secure jobs via having a face that ‘fitted in’, it is the case that the rise of social media can be used for matters of social and employment justice. In discussing this case concerning a major figure in anthropology, Jacobs argues that a very strong international system of patronage led not only to that figure’s influence shaping what was researched (and taught), but to who had careers and who did not, with this power leading to support from powerful academic figures across the globe, who signed letters in support of the accused, until social media protest and the filing of legal suits against Harvard made them retract. In this case then, social media, as with the #metoo movement, can be a catalyst for important change and a possible undermining of existing power relations.

A final point I will make here before summing up on the broad nature of academic exploitation and then considering other possible sources of resistance and change, is that a mix of systems of legibility and an informal culture combine to, over time, see a shift in attitudes, appointments, research undertaken and the mode of communication. What this means is that while the state may pay lip service to academic freedom and while it seeks, in the UK, to legislate to protect its conception of ‘free speech’ in universities, there is a general change in social science away from scholarship that is more critical and which has connections to the humanities and theory (meaning social theory and continental philosophy) and towards research that is more ‘scientific’. To be clear, this is not a critical point against quantitative research, which is a useful research method. It is a critical point against a general shift in universities to work that is more applied and technocratic. Quantitative work does not have to be technocratic, as it can raise important issues about widespread and sustained inequality, but the move to a more ‘scientific’ social science is a move to a technocratic and uncritical approach to developing a science of, not society, but those aspects of society the state wants researched.

Partly this is due, in the UK, to: the pressure to get grants and what grants are available being influenced to some extent by government objectives (despite the stated belief in academic freedom); the Research Excellence Framework audit which measures ‘significance’ (meaning citations and the establishment of a name as a citable-brand), alongside ‘originality’ and ‘rigour’, as well as research ‘impact’, meaning the take-up of research by outside organisations; and to the pressure to produce research of economic value (‘knowledge exchange’ measure by the KEF or ‘Knowledge Exchange Framework’) of use in increasing graduate employability.

But, I would say, as much as this, there is a general shift in attitudes, towards work which is regarded as more ‘scientific’, because there is a cultural shift underway that sees knowledge as having value only if of use and while blue skies STEM research may not be of immediate use the turn to science to create a technocratic social science means being seen to do ‘useful’ work more easily recognised and valued as such. In a recent article on US social science publishing throughout the 2010s, which is not subject to the same government legibility-audit influence, but which is subject to a cultural shift, Savage and Olejniczak (2022) argue that the number of books published has declined significantly across different disciplines, while article publishing increased, with this being connected not to a desire to publish shorter items more quickly, but to the use of the methods developed in natural science. One consequence of this was that theory, in its usual sense, was being squeezed out.

When Durkheim sought to establish a quantitative—scientific sociology as a professional social science worthy of its own departments, chairs, funding, and degrees etc. in France, he did so as someone well versed in philosophy, familiar with, for instance, Nietzsche and pragmatism. Now there is the risk that future social scientists may only be trained to answer a narrow range of questions using the same methodological techniques with no sense of the history of their discipline and the broader connections to other disciplines and the types of questions they address. One may only know the latest empirical papers on a currently researched topic and lack the social-historical intellectual resources to think more widely about how research topics are framed and addressed. Ultimately, the social sciences may become sites for the creation of knowledge that elites accept as useful, with secure positions within knowledge production and dissemination relying on systems of patronage that work to serve the market.

A broader approach to the politics of knowledge production and dissemination, than that of Marxism, would take an intersectional view. While we may accept that academic workers, as noted above, are exploited, some workers have considerable power over others, with this stemming in part from historical inequalities concerning class, race and gender. Neoliberalism has not removed Feudal aspects of university employment and neoliberalism has created both a system of legibility and a working culture that intensify exploitation, by producing overwork, exhaustion, stress, depression, intensified competition for resources and success in the rankings market intensifying Feudal power and the need for graduate students to seek acceptance from a Feudal Lord to enter their patronage system. Universities are seeking, or at least talking of seeking, what Nancy Fraser (2019) called ‘progressive neoliberalism’, meaning they want to promote the liberal principle of equality of opportunity in market competition for jobs and promotions. The problems here are that: jobs and promotion are tied into systems of patronage which themselves can still be influenced by historical inequalities; this promotes an individualist-competitive outlook rather than one based on solidarity and collective action; and that the problem is with the neoliberal and, indeed, capitalist approach to universities, which commodifies knowledge and pushes workers endlessly to increase productivity, which makes employment itself oppressive and exploitative. These problems relate to how workers produce and disseminate knowledge but there is also a problem, under Feudalism and with neoliberalism, concerning what knowledge gets produced and disseminated. As I have suggested, systems of patronage shaped knowledge production and now these are, in neoliberal times, moving towards the production of uncritical and technocratic knowledge in the social sciences.

Workers become squeezed to work longer hours by employers, but there is a culture that promotes overwork and self-promotion which can also see social media used as a privatised escape from a privatised stress, although the actual causes of problems are historic and structural. A more social and collective response is needed to seek an alternative response to the current politics of knowledge production and dissemination.

Final Considerations

In the UK there are problems with the significantly falling value of pay, unmanageable workloads, major pension cuts, mass casualisation, and the gender pay gap, with strikes occurring again in response to these ongoing problems. Earlier strike action led to a sense of solidarity with people commenting how they had overcome their sense of isolation and realised the problems they faced were faced by others. Hopefully, this will continue and lead to sustained union resistance to ongoing assaults on working conditions of staff, although mobilising to meet the threshold for a strike to be legal has been more challenging this time. But this is only part of the problem, for many academics seeking escape from casual contracts, one hope is to gain work with a Feudal Lord who can help make their career, but this can limit the range of critical voices in academia, because in addition potentially to reproducing historical inequalities, it polices the scope for critical dialogue. I would say that a change to universities that can address the full extent of the problems is only possible as part of a much wider social and political change. This is not to deny the importance of struggles to reduce the exploitation currently experienced, but it is to say much more needs to be done too. Such social and political change, I would suggest, is possible from groups in civil society that organise in a co-operative way and which seek to tackle problems in a way that recognises the interlinking of social and economic problems. Co — operative provision of services, operating as much as possible beyond state legibility regimes, could help push for a transformation.

One may hold there is a tension between advocating an anarchist approach, which calls for horizontal organisation, and a criticism of the undermining of professions, as professions may be seen as elitist, especially with the way Feudal universities operate. However, anarchism does not commit to a folk epistemology and can be used to argue for an approach to authority, in this case, epistemic authority, that is rational and free from domination, because it is based on a dialogic engagement with lay agents, which helps empower them, to, in this case, become more informed in their criticism. Similarly, one would not eschew medical authority, despite criticising the abuses of medical authority, but argue for medical professionals to have a more dialogic relationship with their patients (Gadamer, 1993).

Marx (2000) famously held that social being determines consciousness in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, meaning that the material relations of production people enter into shape their consciousness. For Marx, the collective experience of the intrinsically exploitative and chaotic conditions of capitalist production would lead to a revolutionary consciousness developing. The problem with today’s experience of work in the global north is that in economies which are mostly post-industrial and service sector based is that people’s experience is more individualised, especially with the increase in casualisation and the transfer of jobs into self-employment. Of course there are cases of workers in, for example, Amazon warehouses and some fast food ‘restaurants’ in the US, developing a collective action to shared conditions of exploitation, and pushing for union recognition along with improved pay and conditions, in the face of constantly squeezing with low pay and long hours of hard labour. Nonetheless, there is a general rise of a fragmented experience of employment and this is particularly true in academia where fellow academics who are not formally part of management can act as exploiters to serve themselves and by extension managers who want the brand to succeed in the rankings game.

I would like to close by suggesting that a shared sense of exploitation is the necessary but insufficient condition for radical transformative change. Staying with an emphasis on being, or ontology, I will suggest that a sense of finitude is needed, whereby the socio-historical limits to our being are recognised, with this entailing a sense of being invited to go beyond those current limits, not in the sense of transhumanist narcissism, but in terms of dialogue with others and the study of ideas. Collini (2012) held that higher education needed to be dissatisfying rather than satisfying. This was because higher education ought not to be akin to a market transaction where a customer purchases a product, given that students do not know what the subject is and ought not to be making monologic market demands for satisfaction, when the task was that of immersion into new ways of thinking and feeling, which will be a challenging and unsettling process. This can in turn promote the breaking out of imposed cultures of domination and the creation of a consciousness that refuses any monological demand to conform. The problem though is that often universities are defined by Feudal-neoliberal relations of domination, a fractured and exploited workforce finding identity and escape in Twitterstorms driven by a censorious and fractured left attacking itself, notwithstanding the progressive use of social media, and students who are told university is about academics being no more than word butlers delivering small chunks of easily digestible word burgers in a posh but McDonalized (Ritzer 2021) outlet. Collective resistance from academics and students does occur despite this but can then be met with punitive measures from management and Feudal Lords who want their research team’s work to be uninterrupted by strikes or occupations.

Part I: “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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