Am I a (Good) Neoliberal?

In a recently published paper in the Journal of Sociology (2018a), I sought to describe how something as abstract as a political rationality is experienced in the everyday lives of scholars. The growth of audit cultures, managerial power and new languages for describing academic work are each a focal point of a broader arena of political changes to higher education and academic research. In another recent paper (2018b), I have also argued that we currently practice scholarship in a culture of authenticity, in which our personal values and identities are often inseparable from how we evaluate our work and careers. I find the intersection of these papers – of political economy and self-identity – an unavoidable part of everyday early-career academic life. After a good half-hour of catching up with friends and describing our small victories, stressful setbacks and unexpected re-routings, an apologetic tone may find its way into our conversation. Like a proper middle-class apology for excessive behaviour, one of us will acknowledge, “aren’t we good neoliberal subjects?”

This trope, of confessing how embedded we are in an individualist, boastful ritual, is representative of an identity tension at the heart of early-career academic life. Peter Bansel and Bronwyn Davies (2010) described the longer, later-career version of this conversational trope in a book chapter, where they interview a highly successful professor who works to make ‘neoliberal’ (managerial) forms of government work because of ‘a love of what neoliberalism puts at risk’. The professor is resigned to working within the system to achieve ends that he claims are beyond them and informed by Christian values and a sense of duty towards his colleagues and students. But the apology trope comes in the form of an admission that there is no freedom from working with management. Freeing oneself from neoliberalism is akin in futility to trying to buying your way out of capitalism: the means are as important as the ends.

It’s very easy to feel very small in comparison to a school, an organisation, a nation-state, and especially a political rationality. Like capitalism, the concept of neoliberalism seems to pursue scholars in moments of vulnerability: in speculating about the future, in career planning, and in justifying self-serving behaviours. But what I want to clarify here is that this political rationality, though wide-spread and deeply embedded in parts of everyday life, is not mysterious nor all-pervasive. Rather, what Philip Mirowski (2013) describes as ‘everyday neoliberalism’ is experienced through specific spaces, technologies and habituated moments in everyday life. Neoliberalism is felt to be so pervasive because of its successful normalisation into the cultural repertoires through which we make sense of, organise and act upon ourselves and others. That is, the methods for thinking about the world encouraged by neoliberalism seem pervasive because they colonise not only our present, but also speculation about myriad future possibilities.

Let’s use the example of academic career planning. In my doctoral study of 29 Australian academics, career planning emerged in conversations as a key practice through which academics felt that they negotiated their values and put strategies into practice. Academic career planning in an exercise premised on uncertainty. Participants often described the ‘luck’ of securing full-time work, ‘resilience’ to downturns in career prospects, and having to cultivate a ‘go-getting’ attitude. Individualised strategies and explanations were the standard for accounting for career planning in the presence of systemic risks, such as limited job opportunities or time-constraints placed on activities by departmental management. To cope with the cognitive dissonance of thinking of the career as both a personal responsibility and a ‘lucky’ (impersonal) process, academics may engage in what Caroline Clarke and David Knight (2015) call ‘careering’ or what Ruth Müller (2014) identifies as the ‘anticipatory acceleration’ of work. However, these strategies are not conceived of and executed in isolation: schemas must be learned through socialisation. Neoliberalism is apparent in both policy frameworks that incentivise competitive behaviours, but also in institutions that socialise strategies for coping with competition. Career planning is a key site for encouraging this socialisation.

If we take the idea that career planning is a site of governmental socialisation seriously, then cultural norms that prescribe career trajectories are themselves part of a governmental apparatus. Career planning connects the conduct of academics with the idea of ‘risk’ as a narrative tool, shaping how academics confront uncertainty in their careers. As Mirowski claims, for the neoliberal subject, risk is a test of virtue: ‘The modern denizen of neoliberal society has not demonstrated real flexibility of personal identity until they have prostrated themselves before the capricious god of risk’ (2013, p. 120). In early-career planning, risk can be experienced as performance of ‘hope labour’ (Kuehn and Corrigan 2013) – that is, labour performed (usually gratis) with the intention of gaining experience or professional kudos. Careering, anticipatory acceleration and hope labour are not only career-management practices, but also entwined with the socialisation of academics into neoliberal policy frameworks.

So, coming back to the conversation at the beginning of this post: Aren’t we good neoliberal subjects? Perhaps. It would be difficult to build a case for employment or promotion without paying attention to how you measure up. But the question of identity does not fit well with a theory of political reason such as neoliberalism: our identities are only frozen moments with processes of socialisation and self-formation. Perhaps the more valuable question to ask here is: how have we come to learn and accept these practices for self-management? Only once this empirical work has been done can we trace these modes of self-formation back to the rationalities, discourses and technologies of power that enable their operation. So, in place of the question about our subjecthood, I instead ask: How do we make good neoliberal subjects?


Works cited:

Bansel, P. and B. Davies (2010) Through a love of what neoliberalism puts at risk, in J. Blackmore, M. Brennan and L. Zipin (eds.) Re-positioning University Governance and Academic Work, pp. 166-146, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Cannizzo, F. (2018a) Tactical evaluations: Everyday neoliberalism in academia, Journal of Sociology 54(1): 77-91.

Cannizzo, F. (2018b) ‘You’ve got to love what you do’: Academic labour in a culture of authenticity, The Sociological Review 66(1): 91-106.

Clarke, C.A. and D. Knight (2015) Careering through academia: Securing identities or engaging ethical subjectivities? Human Relations 68(12): 1865-1888.

Kuehn, K. and T.F. Corrigan (2013) Hope labor: The role of employment prospects in online social production, The Political Economy of Communication 1(1): 9-25. Available at

Mirowski, P. (2013) Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, London: Verso.

Müller, R. (2014) Racing for what? Anticipation and acceleration in the practices of academic life science postdocs, Forum: Qualitative Social Research / Sozialforschung 15(3): Art. 15. Available at


Time Management in Academia – A Road Map for Research

How do academics organise their time? What experiments and techniques of time management are practiced in higher education? How are early-career academics socialised into time management routines? In this post, I outline an upcoming project to trace the personal and communal practices that academics use to organise their work. If you have any advice or opinions, please share them in the comments below.

The pace of life in academia has become a central concern of professionals in the sector. I have written and published a bit on work/life balance, managerialism, identity, values, and range of topics that are pervaded by discourses of accelerationism and the loss of autonomy over working conditions. Heather Menzies and Janice Newson’s paper ‘No Time to Think’ is typical of the sentiment. Intensifying and mobile work routines have been enabled by digital technologies and brought into demand through competitive pressures in the university bureaucracy and academic status hierarchies. For early-career researchers to mid-career course managers and lab coordinators, time pressure is the key phrase. Changing organisational structures are discussed in terms of conflicting temporalities.

Individualised, self-centred responses to time pressure is normatively assumed in much of the literature. This is not a surprising assumption, given that the very idea of ‘career-building’ in academia is now strongly associated with individual performance appraisals and growing rhizomes of data collection and fabrication software. The metric regimes that have come to regularly interface with academics though profile-based social media (Twitter,, ResearchGate) and identity-tracking platforms (ORCiD, ResearcherID, GoogleScholar) seem to eerily mimic institutional performance appraisals (tracking publications, grant money, teaching experience, role titles) and morph them into further figures (such as ResearchGate’s bizarre RG Score).

While the identity-focus of the audit culture in higher education seems to incentivise individualistic approaches to dealing with time-pressure, some very interesting practices have become socialised. Perhaps one of the most well-known recent developments has been the Shut up and Write (SUAW) communities that have emerged (see in particular The Thesis Whisperer’s post on this for a clear explanation). Groups all over the world are using social media and location-tracking software to schedule regular meetings for both academics and other creative and professional writers. SUAW, using the Pomodoro technique (in short, 25 mins of intensive writing, 5 min break, repeat), offers to assist with time management through time-compression; what might be written in a meandering, email-distracted way over a few hours might be punched out in a matter of minutes. SUAW is hence a technique for self-regulation through community.

Members of SUAW communities express appreciation not only for the technique and regulating presence of other writers, but also the sense of belonging that is created. SUAW groups can be spaces to have one’s efforts recognised and celebrated, as well as assist with the task of writing. It is interesting that this writing practice is possible in isolation (all you need is a timer and writing space) and yet groups gather in both physical and online spaces, routinely, to perform solitary acts together.

I aim over this year to explore what other methods and practices have been established to manage time in academia and in particular what techniques exist for socialising academics into time management practices. These could occur in the classroom (at undergraduate levels), in the office (for graduate students), in seminars, in online spaces cafes (as per the SUAW collectives), in tearooms or read from classic texts (such as the appendix to C. Wright Mill’s The Sociological Imagination, ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship’).

If you have an interest in these practices, ideas or just want to chat about your methods, comment below, follow me on Twitter (@fabiancann) or email me at

Challenges for the Future of Australian Sociology

The Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) announced by the Australian Commonwealth Government has received media attention for the inclusion of cost-cutting to universities to the tune of $2.1 billion. The budget ‘savings’ are expected to accrue from a two-year freeze on the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, a cap on funding for Commonwealth Supported Places, and an adjustment of the repayment conditions of government-issued student loans (through HECS-HELP / FEE-HELP). These cuts are of course economic in nature and consequence, quite probably aimed at maintaining the nation’s AAA credit rating and leading to a greater focus on high-return activities in universities, such as teaching full-fee-paying domestic and (especially) international students, to subsidise the university’s operating costs. It seems that market discipline in the higher education sector begins in the Treasury.

Similarly to other public universities around the world, Australia’s public institutions face ongoing pressure to do more with less. It is within this climate that I propose to re-evaluate the challenges facing the discipline of sociology in Australia. In a recent overview of the history of Australian Sociology, Kirsten Harley and Gary Wickham describe sociology’s place in the university as one of both fragility and resilience. Sociology didn’t fare so well in the early six ‘Sandstone’ institutions, which the authors put down to a combination of moral and epistemic issues: the ‘moral, social reformist goals’ of advocates of sociological teaching were not always welcome and sociology had, and perhaps still has, a tendency to define itself broadly to include the study of nearly everything under the sun, seeming less useful than more coordinated disciplines such as economics.

Sociology’s fortunes began to shift with institutional and cultural developments. Institutionally, universities grew from the 1950s onwards, firstly as part of a decision to expand higher education from an elite sector into ‘mass’ education, and secondly during the late 1980s as part of a strategy to create a Unified National System of higher education under a more centralised budgetary control. This expansion allowed sociology to find allies in sympathetic disciplines, such as philosophy, anthropology and social work, sharing teaching, funding and aims. Culturally, the growth of counter-cultures throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s saw an increase in students seeking ‘experiences’, rather than simply professional training. Sociology was ripe to enrich students’ desires ‘to experience the new political, cultural, and sexual ways of living’ that followed the civil-political revolutions of that era.

Harley and Wickham’s book encourages readers to see the history of sociology’s passing fortunes and failures as tied to the university and the state. However, the discipline’s ultimate survival has been more centred in the reproduction of labour markets for self-identified ‘sociologists’. Drawing on Stephen Turner’s chapter, ‘What are Disciplines?’, Harley and Wickham (p. 72) endorse the view that disciplines are ‘shotgun marriages’ of different specialities, often conflicting and ‘held together by the imperatives of the academic labour market’. Sociology does not need a title for its teachings to be practiced or its methods to perpetuate the values of truth, justice and beauty. However, sociologists are not abstract practices like disciplines; they have families, obligations, perhaps sizeable government-issued debts, and exist outside the value-sphere of the academy.

In the surplus-centred budget climate suggested by the MYEFO, a key challenge for sociology-as-discipline is not in scooping up a share of the public R&D pie or huddle additional full-fee-paying students into classrooms (these are challenges for higher education corporations and specific research programs), but rather to foster clearer communication between the applied study of ‘the social’ and other research and education programs that benefit from its presence. This doesn’t necessarily imply ‘Mode 2’ knowledge creation, as social theory (an inter-disciplinary field) has done exceptionally well to work its way into allied disciplines, as Harley and Wickham have noted. Sociology – a productively fractured discipline – expands as it collaborates in interdisciplinary environments, justifying the need for diverting resources to sociological training and disciplinary development.

There is also an economic rationale behind embedding sociologists more solidly among other disciplines and within fields. The Australian university sector, much like universities in the global ‘north’ generally, are struck by what Rob Watts has termed ‘market crazed governance’ (p. 183):

This is a style of state-sponsored policy that starts with some imaginary narrative about higher education as a market, while also and simultaneously actually supporting the production and juxtaposition of contradictory government policy objectives. At the same time, inside the universities, that policy frame, sponsors and encourages a new kind of management culture of practice informed by the ethos of new public management.

This mode of governance assumes that education can be conceptualised as a private good in a marketplace, which Watts claims only becomes possible ‘by some process that involves something like reification’ (p. 164). Because education is an ‘experiential good’ (the contents of which are only apparent after exposure to the good – i.e. though the eyes of an attentive student), ‘consumers’ cannot be fully aware of what they are purchasing, making education unable to be honestly sold in a marketplace. Now, for sociology, the opaque nature of educational goods for consumers means that the value of sociological inquiry can only become apparent after education. A marketing student may not necessarily see the value in attending a course on gender and sex representations in the media or a specialist unit on global consumption chains, but in both instances marketing students who happened upon such classes (“for fun”) have found them thought-provoking for their future careers. The systemic thinking of sociology should hence be spread far and wide to encourage the development of complex social reasoning beyond the core of Sociology majors.

The future of Australian sociology has many challenges ahead to retain the resilience and ‘survival’ skills described by Harley and Wickham. This discipline is a great source of what Steve Fuller describes as ‘undiscovered public knowledge’ (p. 82), and may enrich both itself, students and other scholars through strategic dissemination into less ‘traditional’ arenas.

“Potential, Possible or Probable” Predatory Publishers List Pushed to the Archives

As a postgraduate researcher, you are often warned, repeatedly, to watch out from predatory journal publishers, offering to review and publish your labour of love (perhaps at a fee), and more often than not addressing you as “Dr.”, “Professor” or “Chairman” (yes, it happens). If you had then gone on to ask how to identify predatory publishers, a thoughtful colleague might have sent you to a source such as Jeffrey Beall’s List of (what he describes as) “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers” and journals (You’ll note that all of Beall’s pages are currently archived on If you have never heard of Beall’s List or Jeffrey’s work, check out this short segment from a CBC clip on “Cleaning up bad science“.

Beall’s List – De-commissioned

The frequent qualifications that attend comments on Beall’s List (i.e. “potentially” or “allegedly” predatory publishers) should remind users of the list that Beall’s work does not sanitise scholars of the need to use their own judgement and do their research. For any journal or publisher included on the list, Beall has maintained an Appeals page where he and his advisory team have sought to address scholar’s concerns and review inclusions on their list. While attempting to assist scholars in guarding their own reputations, Beall’s List has attempted to improve academia’s meta-cognisance, making itself aware of the need to question the institutions on which its practitioners depend.

Unfortunately for these ideals, Beall’s List was discovered to have been taken down in mid-January, with most being left to speculate as to why. Both Beall’s Facebook and staff page at Auraria Library have also been deactivated/dismantled.

Retraction Watch (a rather self-explanatory name really) claims: “The decision to take down the site — and Beall’s faculty page at the Auraria Library, where he remains a tenured associate professor — was his own, the University of Colorado Denver tells [us].” Beall appears to have remained silent over why he has pursued this decision, although Retraction Watch notes that Beall has been threatened with lawsuits before, from a publisher on his list. If indeed some form of litigation has compelled Beall to act, then the scholarly enterprise may be all the worse for it. As Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus have noted, Beall’s List wasn’t just a blacklist, but a “a catalog of remarkably bad behavior” – a glimpse between the value-spheres of academia and business and a reminder of where organised scholarship is far from perfect.

For many, this bad behaviour is not limited to publishers. On the blog Derivance, Luděk Brož, Tereza Stöckelová and Filip Vostal lament the loss of Beall’s List and recall its utility in raising the publishing history of Dr Wadim Strielkowski to controversial status. The trio comments that

Strielkowski, then a junior lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague, first attracted the attention of colleagues in early 2015, when it was discovered that he had published 17 monographs and more than 60 journal articles in just three years. It is probably not surprising that a number of these texts were published in a rather unconventional way: Strielkowski’s monographs, with one exception, were in fact self-published and self-illustrated, even though each appeared to have been published by the Faculty of Social Sciences. A substantial amount of his articles were published in journals that could be described, following Beall’s terminology, as “potentially, possibly or probably predatory”.

Mark Carrigan notes that the case of Dr Strielkowski emphasises the agency of scholars in the transformation of scholarly norms:

The case is a fascinating one because it illustrates how metricised evaluation and predatory publishing cannot simply be regarded as imposed from outside, leaving academic victims with no choice but to adapt or be left behind. Strielkowski is an extreme example but his case illustrates how the opportunities these systems create for advancement are drawn upon and engaged with knowingly by scholars, in a way that is always implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) orientated to the others embedded within them.

The rise of predatory publishing is perhaps something of a misnomer because it implies a unilateral process of domination by publishers and journals. Certainly for more naive scholars seeking to find some source of security in our academic pursuits, journals engaging in (ostensible) flattery and promises of publication are predators. However, taking a more ecological (and systemic) view, both academics and publishing companies may indulge new sets of norms, centred around metric rankings and outputs rather than scholarly merit. A culture of publishing, focused on the value added via publication metrics is not predatory or “bloodsucking”, but rather parasitic: the host is the ideal of intellectual development and the parasite is the technocratic norm that reconstitutes the world in an abstract game. Both publishers and academics alike must choose to play at the expense of self-scrutiny.


Dignity in a Consumer Society: Thinking with Bauman and Hochschild

Advanced democratic societies are in need of new models to understand the politics emerging under the labels of neo-conservatism, ethno-nationalism, the alt-right, and, occasionally, anti-politics. The ostensive failure of polls to predict Trump’s presidency, alongside the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation politics in Australia (among countless other examples in Europe and Britain) has not deterred political commentators from drawing on the logic of party politics – that is, that individuals and communities are seeking representatives to support their ideologies or interests through positions of power.

For example, an article published by Rationalist Society member Hugh Harris earlier today probed the One Nation Party’s ideological support base through the keyhole issue of terrorism:

Growing levels of support for One Nation and other parties of its ilk are amplified by the infuriating determination of major party leaders to deny the link between religious belief and Islamism… Refusing to acknowledge what is so obvious and in plain view fuels an ardent desire to hear someone talk honestly about it.

Surely, we can acknowledge the influence of the Islamic fundamentalism in groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram, while calmly recognising that these extreme views are held by only a minority of Muslims. Concepts such as jihadism, martyrdom, hard-line sharia law and Dar al-Harb (House of War) are central to Salafi jihadism, and inseparable from Islamic terrorism.

The assumption that the One Nation Party continues to gather support because its leaders promise to address this issue by abolishing those “who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own” implies knowledge about her voting base. However, a short trip down the page, to the nefarious comments section of Harris’ article reveals a petri dish of discontent and admiration.

Besides the derision of the “PCs”, the “Lefties”, “Greenies”, and “babbling” Liberal and Labour leaders who attack society’s most vulnerable are qualifications about support for Pauline Hanson. The most common qualification is: “I don’t agree with all her views… she fills a gap in the political market”. The characteristics of hers often admired are her “pragmatism”, fearlessness, patriotism and resolve – claims that mirror the praise of neo-conservative supporters for their leaders abroad.

(via Greg Wood/AFP/Getty)

The continuing growth of political analysis demonstrated here needs sociological context. Continuing on my reflections of Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land (in my previous post), in this blog post I seek to extend Hochschild’s toolbox for analysing political divisions through Bauman’s Work, Consumerism and the New Poor.

Firstly, to recap from last post: Hochschild asks political analysts to look beyond the often repeated clichés about Tea Party advocates and Trump supporters, to understand their “deep story” and scale the empathy wall built of our own prejudices and unconscious biases. Her narrative is one of seeking understanding before explanation, a quest in the practice of interpretive sociology.

Despite my new found appreciation for the complexity of emotions and narratives beneath the Tea Party label, I am still troubled by the diversity of political opinions that become, often begrudgingly, huddled under the Party Politics of groups such as the Tea Party, Trump’s Republican Party and One Nation. And although these groups are popular signifiers for the socio-political phenomenon that I wish to understand, I suspect that these opinions aren’t limited by how individuals act at the voting booth. As Yanis Varoufakis noted in The Guardian, in the USA post-2008 “the establishment habitually blamed the victims of predatory lending and the failed health system”. The legitimacy of the state has long been contentious.

In 2005, the late Zigmunt Bauman published a refined commentary of contemporary “developed” societies’ treatment of the poor, at home and abroad. In Work, Consumerism and the New Poor, Bauman develops a model for understanding the social exclusion of the poor. In his introduction, he claims,

It is one thing to be poor in a society of producers and universal employment; it is quite a different thing to be poor in a society of consumers, in which life-projects are built around consumer choice rather than work, professional skills or jobs. If ‘being poor’ once derived its meaning from the condition of being unemployed, today it draws its meaning primarily from the plight of a flawed consumer.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but two claims warrant close attention: (1) Our society primarily values human agency where it resembles the action of the consumer, invoking the image of a broad societal pattern in which individuals often evaluate their own behaviours in terms of better or worse “choices”; and (2) The poor individual is one who has made, and could be suspected to continue to make, poor choices. As you may guess, Bauman takes issue with a monolithic reading of “the poor” or “the underclass” as a unified category, opting to interpret its existence as the result of an act of social classification, rather than reference to an actually existing (coherent) collection of persons.

However, the non-existence of “the poor” does not dismantle the ideological power of this category. In a phase of capitalism where desire is driven by the struggle to find “the good life” (be that the American Dream or some other vision of pleasure, security, or happiness), choice has become a variable in the calculus of justice: poor choices should beget poor people. Post-welfare democracies are riddled with such rhetoric.

Recalling how states and politicians cope with the existence of the poor is invaluable to understanding neo-conservative politics honestly. The recession of the welfare state took with it the political hope that governments could ensure “something more than sheer survival: survival with dignity”, as Bauman claims. No longer needed to fulfil the role of a reserve army of labour, the poor have become increasingly viewed as a cost rather than an asset to the industrial-state complex.

Banksy brilliance, ongoing stigmatism

Means testing for government intervention into the survival of the poor has become a tool to both distinguish the deserving from the undeserving poor, as well as confer the status of the failed consumer on those who succeed in passing the means test. In Bauman’s description of consumer society, both the middle class and the poor have reason to feel cheated by their state and politicians: the government supports the livelihood of bad “choosers” and confers shame on those individuals seeking to make it despite their bad luck.

In the midst of describing the perpetual decay of the welfare state and societal social support programs, Bauman questions: “How can it be… that the majority of voters in a democratic polity give freely their support to the increase of social inequality?” For the middle class, the provision of welfare programs, through means testing, become associated with those least able to politically defend their needs, making them easy prey for news stories extolling “fraud, deception and abuse” of those programs. For those accessing welfare programs, any admission of their “special status” is also an admission of defeat – a loss of dignity.

The moral semiotics surrounding poverty have the potential to contribute to our understanding of contemporary populist politics, and the great distrust that neoconservative voters and politicians share concerning conventional party politics. Hochschild has already provided some analysis of the love of the “free market” and distrust of government regulation discussed by many of her Tea Party friends. But what her story lacks is a grounding in a political historical context, such as that which Bauman brings forth in his work. Such reflection allows us to connect a moral semiotics, which Hochschild describes at length, with the transformation of societal attitudes towards those most politically vulnerable. The Tea Party phenomenon is emblematic of segments of a global population who feel both the loss of dignity and the sense of being cheated out of the good life.

Bauman’s analysis of the ethics of a consumer society may also lend some explanatory power to why political discourse has taken a “post-factual” turn. In considering the impact of trumps politics on the future of higher education in the USA, John Morgan argued that

This [post-factual] attitude to facts may perhaps be linked to an indifference to, or resentment of, education. [George Washington University President, Steven] Knapp says that the presidential campaign evidenced “to some extent, I think it’s fair to say, a bit of an anti-intellectual tone; a kind of rebellion against expertise; a sense that… people who were left out of universities were being left disadvantaged by the elitism of the educated classes”.

This populist resentment of education may be, in part, an attempt to re-write the rules of “successful” and “failed” choices; the educated are wrong and therefore their families’ choices to indoctrinate them in the education system are wrong. Kellyanne Conway’s coining of the term “alternative facts” and William Davies’ excellent analysis of how statistics lost their power both demonstrate that knowledge is always discursive and political. Being right, being seen as making good choices, is not a matter of truth – it’s a matter of honour and dignity.

I hope, in future research and activism, that intellectuals and other members of political communities will find the time to investigate the transformation of ground-level politics further. This analysis cannot simply be transferred onto other democratic societies (as I would like to accomplish in the Australian setting) because of the differences in the stories that nations and communities tell one another about the good life, justice, truth, and self. I don’t believe such a feat may be achieved through scanning the comments section of political journalism alone!


The Deep Story: A Reflection on Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land

The eruption of contemporary populist politics across states and within the global news media has elicited a whirlwind of reactions from the interwebs and braniacs alike. For many, the message seems simple, perhaps reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s infamous quip about the best argument against democracy. The success of president-elect Donald Trump, the United Kingdom’s European Union membership referendum (Brexit), and – perhaps smaller but not less worthy of comment – the One Nation party’s senate success in Australia have turned the attention of many political commentators to the media of communication. As Mark Chou and Michael Ondaatje have argued in relation to the Trump campaign,

Citizens who depend on the media for reliable campaign coverage and substantive analyses of candidates’ policies will be left either unsatisfied or none the wiser. In the worst case scenario, the public will begin to believe that style, performance and drama are what ultimately matter when it comes to understanding electoral politics. That is bad both for individual citizens and for democracy as a whole.

Employing a dramaturgical analysis, they question the authenticity of Trump’s presidential persona (as, no doubt, many of us have) by describing the affectations of his melodrama: ‘Building the wall, keeping Muslims out, demonizing China, provoking Islamic State, championing the rights of “everyday” Americans – all these are “policies” which would fit perfectly within a melodramatic paradigm’. While there is little doubt that the Trump phenomenon is a socially engineered one, reminiscent of Trump’s persona on The Apprentice, it is not so clear whether the revelation of this engineering is a threat to his public image. To understand the meaning of the theatricality of populist politicians, attention must be focused on the context of reception – on how audiences use popular imagery, language and politics in their own lives.

Perhaps one of the most direct (and certainly most readable) commentaries on the emergence of populist sentiment in the United States to date has been Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. Hochschild’s book is an exercise in overcoming the emotional and cultural barriers that divides the politics of the ‘North’ and ‘South’ of the USA. Although the geographical imagery is a loose guide to the divide that she is attempting to bridge across, Hochschild argues that it is vital for understanding the cultural semiotics that individuals use to frame their political kinship and adversaries. Hochschild’s interview participants (snowball sampled from the southern state of Louisiana) are all white Tea Party supporters from the middle, lower-middle and working classes who share a ‘deep story’ about the progress of American society and their place in it. This deep story is not a factual account of history, but rather ‘a narrative as felt’ (p. ix). Hochschild describes this feeling-narrative thusly:

A deep story is a feels-as-if story—it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story. (p. 135)

The analysis of ‘deep stories’ require putting aside the moral and emotional objections that one has to a claim in order to reproduce the logic of feeling associated with the claim. For Hochschild, this requires scaling ‘empathy walls’ – in other words, overcoming the knee-jerk reactions that feel when in the presence of the politically contentious or outright abominable. These walls are ‘obstacle[s] to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances’ (p. 5). This is not a call to embrace racist, sexist or otherwise prejudiced politics, but rather an invocation to seek out the interpersonal logics that influence how others engage with politics in the first place. The medium of communication says nothing about the message without the context of reception.

Generalising from Hochschild’s methods, what her book offers is not only an analysis of the undercurrent of Tea Party politics in the USA, but also a tool kit for the exploration of the politics of ‘Others’ in politically bifurcating societies. For Hochschild in the United States, the empathy walls that she faced as a Berkley-educated-and-professor-emerita sociologist were those generally between the Democrat and the Republican, or more accurately between the progressive and the conservative in that nation. However, the interaction rituals, communication formats and structures of feeling that allow such chasms to emerge are not specific to the United States.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has already surveyed the sites of disintegration of moral debate in his book, After Virtue. At the heart of modern politics is a distrust of political speech that takes the form of moral claims. Moral claims are popularly attributed the status of opinions, attitudes, feelings or preferences (a theory that MacIntyre terms ‘emotivism’) and are unlike factual judgements, which are either true or false. As MacIntyre notes, within this emotivist mindset,

moral judgments, being expressions of attitude or feeling, are neither true nor false; and agreement in moral judgment is not to be secured by any rational method, for there are none. It is to be secured, if at all, by producing certain non-rational effects on the emotions or attitudes of those who disagree with one. We use moral judgments not only to express our own feelings and attitudes, but also precisely to produce such effects in others. (p. 12)

Emotivism is not an ideal for MacIntyre, but rather a response to a specific historical malaise – a theory about the use of moral expressions. Emotivism has historically emerged when individuals ‘use moral and other evaluative expressions, as if they were governed by objective and impersonal criteria, when all grasp of any such criterion has been lost’ (p. 18). In other words, emotivism rests on the premise that we cannot provide satisfying objective (or agreeable) justifications for moral claims. If the failure of the radically ‘left’ and ‘right’ of politics to communicate with one another reflects an historical political trend, it may rest within the disintegration of the Enlightenment ideal of rationally justifying moral claims. The task facing those who seek to repair public and political arenas, as sites of agonism or authentic communicative action, is to bring divergent political identities into a common sphere of conversation where moral claims are not brushed aside as sacred expressions of incommensurable attitudes or treated as the basis of stereotyping persons.

Hochschild’s work is valuable here because she has partially succeeded in overcoming the folk theory of emotivism that breeds suspicion between the wings of politics. Although I’m unsure how successful such a text will prove in inspiring a new agora in American society, Hochschild has certainly provided some interesting tools to think and write with beyond the United States context. In Australia, for example, where the resurgence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party has sent a shiver through the progressive and left-leaning, a cultural semiotics of the party’s voting base would perhaps bring progressives and regressives closer to communication.


Please feel free to comment/criticise on these remarks. I’d love to discuss your take on this.



Hochschild, Arlie R. 2016. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, New York and London: The New Press.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. 2007. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, third edition, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Towards Effective Resistance: Governmental vs. Deliberative Ethics

Resistance and Power

Perhaps the most prominent question surrounding accounts of changes to universities in “neoliberal times” has been an ethical one: whence resistance? In her study of “younger” UK academic staff (under age 35), Louise Archer (2008) describes a range of common strategies through which academic staff attempt to cope with what is often described as neoliberal or managerial modes of governance. Gaming research agendas, speaking out against unfair practices, creating professional support networks, and emotional and spatial self-management were all strategies engaged by younger academics to cope with the perceived increasing work hours and decreasing time for meaningful academic work. Against such a greedy institution, resistance seems to be a fitting description of academics’ desired relation to the university. However, as Archer (p. 280) warns,

[the participants’ resistance also opened them up to other pressures, as resisting subjects can only remain intelligible within the neoliberal context to the extent that they manage to continue to produce the (‘right’) products within the precarious contemporary context.

Consequently, it is those who are likely to be highly motivated to succeed in academia who are attracted to the competitive environment against which they have been forewarned. The desire to “survive” in academia (in a professional sense) complicates the narrative of resistance. There are no clear friends and foes, no villains to smite nor heroes to champion. By contributing, we are conspiring. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why strategies of resistance are often localised, individualistic and moralistic in character.

To assume that universities are holding all the cards, so to speak, is a fallacious attribution of power. Indeed, to conceive of resistance as kind of act which shifts power concpetualises power as a reified substance – a kind of capital held by some and restricted from the grasp of others. Power, as Foucault commented, is a means for describing a quality of relations between individuals whereby some actions are made easier or more difficult by virtue of the actions of others. Understood as a relational property, power implies that individuals are imminently entangled in generating power relations, which are experienced as subjectivity. Or, as Dan Butin (2003: 168) claims:

such a process of subjectification is not simply inscribed upon the individual. The individual does this to herself, one might say under duress, one might argue unwittingly, one might confess with scant choice, but it is not something done to her; it is something done with her.

Once we come to understand how we are subjected within power relations, we may choose to accept or attempt to resist. Either way, these power relations require our cooperation to operate whatsoever. Rather than decry the perverse influence of some (reified) form of power upon a “pure” domain (i.e. Mode 1 knowledge), it is more productive to identify what actions are made easier or harder within power relations, and how this easiness or hardness is able to be reproduced in relations between actors.

Governmental Ethics

A key conceptual tool for understanding widespread patterns of power relations has been as interesting to ancient philosophers as it has to modern sociologists: rationality. In their most “real” form, rationalities are conventions of thought – agreed upon means for transforming ideas or framing reality. When applied to academic governance several, important political rationalities become apparent, the most well-vocalised of which is appropriately termed a neoliberal rationality. When confronted with processes that demand our cooperation, we may develop a number of imaginings about our relationship with those processes. For example, when confronted with the metrics culture of modern academe, we may feel obliged to become stoic system gamers, bounded to our duty to both academe and intellectual cultures; or alternatively we may become protective leaders, assisting others to carve out space for intellectually-demanding work; or we may feel that competition is the necessary reality which we must face as individuals and develop an individualised mode of self-government.

In other words, although neoliberalism (as a political rationality) may seem to prescribe a rational entrepreneur of the self, multiple governmental ethics become possible when filtered through the complexity of human relations and values. Neoliberalism becomes a pervasive political rationality precisely because it can accommodate a nebula of ethical subjectivities while maintaining the integrity of its governmental assemblage. Rather than criticising “who” is able to exist within neoliberal frameworks, or “what” power exists there, the vital question for arriving at an effective mode of resistance is “how” the government of academics proceeds, and “how” we might imagine it otherwise.

For example, one systemic criticism which has developed along these lines is Stephen Ball’s (2003: 216) notion of “performativity” in higher education governance:

What do I mean by performativity? Performativity is a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change – based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organizations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organization within a field of judgement.

Utilising the technology of performativity, academics and teachers find, Ball claims, their values challenged or displaced by “the terrors of performativity” (p. 216), which are passed down from above. Its efficacy as a technology of government is derived from its hyper-rational and objective appearance, which are sustained so long as the means by which real events become “performances” remain black-boxed.

The risk inherent in performative technologies is that they will become self-referential and self-affirming, or value what Ball (p. 224) describes as “fabrications” of reality over attempts to ensure that truthfulness is maintained.

Truthfulness is not the point – the point is their effectiveness, both in the market or for Inspection or appraisal, and in the ‘work’ they do ‘on’ and ‘in’ the organization – their transformational and disciplinary impact.

If the goals of a university are explicitly to satiate the demands generated through mission compacts with the federal government, evidenced through accountability reporting procedures (as occurs in Australian universities), then these “fabrications” risk further closing the informational feedback loops between society and university management. To attempt to assist universities in remaining open to changing social demands and debates, a discourse of “resistance” is clearly not sufficient. A more systemically-oriented critique is required to address issues surrounding self-referential communication systems.

The paradigm of resistance is insufficient for addressing systemic issues because, when enacted, resistance tends to emerge in a highly individualised form. When early career researchers (or even PhD candidates) say “no” to opportunities, address research topics they see value in (but are perhaps not “sexy”) or aim to reduce work involvement (possibly for health reasons), a common discourse of “risk” is likely to follow. The figure of the self-responsible entrepreneur is invoked by well-meaning colleagues and advisors, for your own sake! The change in perspective required here is the need to see how “resistance” is interpreted within a governmental assemblage.

Though many of us may dream of critical theory sheep, it’s important to recognise that in an era normalised around governmental institutions, government is not only accustomed to failure, it is a “congenitally failing operation” (Miller and Rose, 2008: 190). But this trait is perhaps only a birth defect from one perspective. Governors may be so used to their plans facing insurmountable complexity that failure is both expected and considered business-as-usual. Consider these two examples:

  1. Resistance to metrification. A good portion of university rankings and performance metrics are derived from commercial databases and media corporations, such as Time Higher Education and the publishing house Elsevier. Although there are often public and academic critiques of the methods used to score and rank universities, the outcome of critique is seldom the cessation of measurement. Indeed, the failure to satisfy the critics provides a basis for an “improved” or at least “updated” methodology and renewed performances. These new rankings are then able to be marketed and sold, provided they maintain enough credibility. The overall logic of demonstrating competitive advantage is not overcome by problematising the methodology of rankings.
  2. Resistance to systematisation of research. When academics attempt to carve out space for “basic” research or normatively-driven research programs, these initiatives do not overturn the drive towards commercialisation and accountability embedded in the systemic logic of academic capitalism (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004). Basic or normative research that relies on the claim that it’s societal impacts may be unexpected comes up against a hard sell: “funding basic research is a calculated investment in serendipity“. In an era of increased focus on accountability for taxpayer funding, impact is required to be not only “intended”, but also perhaps more predictable. The economic argument for funding basic research (that of “the importance of ‘basic research’ to provide the capital on which the next generation of innovations will be based“) is more readily drawn upon than the argument from serendipity. The new problematic for government becomes – how can research be conducted with greater certainty or security? Disinvestment is an obvious risk-management strategy where this question cannot be adequately answered.

Rather than resistance, the paradigm for thinking about how to organise academic labour needs to be framed in terms of a better means to govern. If the problem with our current corporate-style academic practices are that they are becoming performatively self-referential, or serve the interests of the economic over social, environmental and cultural betterment, then what is needed is a form of doing academic work that is more open to the changing demands that emerge from beyond that closing informational loop. This entails active participation in broadening the kinds of normative discussions which enter into university life – a revised mode for governing academic work.

Deliberative Ethics

So, given that, as academics, we are bound to accountability norms and our own desire to “survive” in academia, we – not personally, but systemically – contribute to the production of a governmental ethics. A form of self-government which begins from the desire “to further secure my position as an academic” will only become a negotiation over how we are subjectified as enterprising academic labourers and hence fail as a paradigm of resistance to current modes of government. It seems that one means through which we may fruitfully attempt to disrupt the current governmental assemblage is to influence how it reasons, which requires systemic thinking.

To influence the trajectory of academic labour, it is perhaps important to reflect on our own function as interpreters and scientists, knowledge producers and disciplined analysts. As intellectuals, we are able to contribute to the formation of values that enter into consideration of why academic labour is governed at all. As opposed to academic labour, which is increasingly instrumental to pre-defined governmental strategies, intellectual labour (the passionate labour grounded in cultural and personal senses of morality, rather than rationality) is normatively driven and not easily reconciled with competing ethics, such as that prescribed by an ethic of entrepreneurship. Because intellectual labour is not dominated by an economic rationality, it may form the basis of deliberation; of opening up governmental practices in academe to a deliberative ethics. Deliberation is not serendipitous – it can occur within time-restricted frames that can be evaluated for effectiveness – but it does allow for a wider range of voices from the intellectual groups to contribute to deliberations. To assist in enacting more deliberative modes of ethics in academia, it is necessary to imagine what we are attempting to accomplish through academe, rather than within it. To this effect, there are perhaps a few useful qualities which we might hope to better cultivate:

  1. More open public communication, not merely in disseminating results, but in formulating research programs. A more deliberative ethics will require academics to communicate normative positions to non-specialists and interpret the values and norms of non-specialists.
  2. A substituting of the status of “academic” for something more like “intellectual” – your value as a thinker derives not from your ability to say more than another person, but to bring them into a process of communicative deliberation with you: to enlighten, not to merely be enlightened.
  3. Acceptance that the modern university is part of a capitalist framework – material capitals, cultural capitals, symbolic capitals, embodied capitals – and that present forms of government (i.e. neoliberal political rationality) will not be reasoned with at a symbolic level. They will, however, respond to changes in how they are able to function on a technological level. Informational networks (in and around which academics frequent) are vital to how government interprets and influences reality. It is worth exploring our authoritative role in the organisation of these media by which governors know the objects/subjects of government.

In summary, to influence the government of academic labour, we need to act on a systemic level, aiming to shift the norms through which knowledge labour is enacted. This will not occur through “resisting”, as resistance under governmentality also presents the current governmental assemblages with new problems to propose solutions towards. Rather, we must be active in generating solutions in a publicly deliberative manner, engaging in a form of ethics which connects our behaviour with the knowledge that we, as intellectuals, develop and embody about the needs of our ecologies to sustain a peaceful and prosperous human existence.

And with only a few hours to spare, Buon anno!