Standing at the interface of academic corporatization and exploitation: why not struggle against the ‘grain’?

 by Sutapa Chattopadhyay[1]

[i]t’s increasingly difficult to define what, substantively, it means to be a thinker of the Left

(Castree and Wright 2005: 6)

Not too long back I read two articles on anti-austerity protest and Quebec student strikes that were published by ClassWarU, and a few others, mostly by activist student scholars. Almost all the articles and interviews that have been published so far in this website pertinently point out the urgent need to employ alternative pathways to connect people, participation and place. There is little to no doubt that the question of happiness and wellbeing is overwhelmingly difficult to answer, as it is ensnared by the laws of neoliberal capitalist accumulation, under continuous and progressive expropriation to the creation of hierarchies and hegemonies (through continuous division of labor along sex, race, class, religion, education, and nationality) to constant production of all forms of social exclusion. The poor and middle classes have shouldered the heaviest burdens of the global political obsession with austerity policies over the past five to six years. In the United States, budget cuts have forced states to reduce education, public transportation, affordable housing, health and other social services. In Europe, welfare cuts have driven some severely disabled individuals to fear for their lives. Austerity is still the order of the day and the struggle against austerity is an all-class war orchestrated in plazas, universities, parks, streets, squares, or any public places that we can think of. This article holds my deep reactions on academic exploitation at the crossing point of other kinds of exploitation that have burgeoned as a response to neoliberal capitalism. There is no simplified account of these struggles, however there is a common thread that explains why ordinary people whose lives get dismantled are standing up in solidarity to resist the neoliberal mix of policies and the polarization of wealth. At this point, it is probably futile or stupid to ask the question, ‘Who benefits from austerity policies?’ or ‘How exactly does scrapping of subsidies, raising tuition fees, and downsizing of factory workers or info-workers, affect the people or the society and a nation as a whole?’ Neoliberalism has resulted in exploitation, appropriation, privatization and deregulation – all of which have affected ordinary people and populations on the margin.

Now I turn to myself, to explain how exactly academic exploitation continues and why? I am an academic and at the interface to secure a stable academic position and to pursue my career as an academic I must publish, probably in key journals. So I am more than willing to publish my articles and gladly give away my copy ‘rights’ to the corporate publisher through the journal. In academia, we are trained to willingly and effortlessly give away our rights over our work or creative project to corporate journals and, in hindsight to giant corporate publishing houses, who would sell our works to scholars like myself, probably to those who do not have access to university libraries and such like, all over the world. However, I also know, that there cannot be anything more ‘exploitative’ than this – where my labor, time, innovative thinking does not get paid for nor am I rewarded for the knowledge I generate. So, in this neoliberal age, I am producing knowledge for ‘free’, so corporate publishing houses can make profit and benefit. Such exploitation goes unchecked because the university hiring process and tenure process quantify efficiency, productivity or scholarly strengths through numbers of manuscripts published, where they are published (ranking of the journals), besides other benchmarks. With my visiting researcher status, whereby I am paid for the classes I teach and for my student supervision work, I cannot state that I am paid for whatever I publish. At the same time, unless I publish I cannot secure an academic post. I am intensely aware that the practice of publishing in corporate journals is gravely problematic. But my radical academic friends and well-wishers have repeatedly told me that I need to publish in flagship journals to survive in academia. Many times, I am forced to recall Nick Blomley, is it “chic to be radical”????

There are other factors that are seriously problematic in academia. In our constrained academic systems, critical social science is progressively drifting apart from action-oriented research on real life issues and this gulf is widening due to a lethal brew of militarization, taylorization, and corporatization of the academic world in the neoliberal landscape. Authors who have touched on the role of time and globalization have shown that university work is technology-driven with the blessings of the internet, techniques of managerialism, accountability and efficiency. Long back in the mid 60s, Marx outlined that the capitalist production disciplined its workers by the clock and today, our everyday activities are determined by units of time. Then why should it be different for academics? Presently, academics suffer from this ‘cult of speed’, compression of time and intensification of work. For example, I always suffer from ‘time crunch’, every work is time-bound, I am always harried to absorb more information in a limited amount of time; to publish more; to serve on more committees; to create ‘strong’ research records; to serve the public; to teach and I do all this to perish as public intellectuals. Very recently, I have started to bring my daughter to work, so she can at least talk to me or share her stories as she scribbles on my office table or plays with her legos. Staying in an academic job is like a war waged against the ‘cult of speed’ and the compression of time, which separates the academic self from personal self thanks to globalization and corporatization.

Today, our universities are corporate infoscapes, perhaps one of the most visible sites of globalization. Universities seek profits from for-profit institutions and foundations, gradually adapt to the corporate policies and goals and concurrently engage with the market, displaying market-like behaviors. Academic work is taylorized as it maximizes job fragmentation, standardizes best practices and minimizes waste by minimizing skills training and requirements; it furthermore emphasizes efficiency and achieves high productivity in minimal time by maintaining low wages as they are determined by pay-by-result methods. Not only this but the neoliberal strategies of rule formulates the academic policy of coercions that act upon the academic workers’ body to manipulate its elements, gestures and behavior. I was told, several times by my superiors, how I should talk, how much time I should spend with my students, which conferences I should or should not attend, where I should publish and how many I should publish. Do we not as the academic workers’ enter the machinery of power? I believe that academic work resembles the ‘factory whistle’ or the ‘school bell’ marking division of time into discrete and segmented units that regulate the various chores we ought to perform throughout the day. I argue that academic work challenges edu-workers’ freedom and creativity through discipline, control, and surveillance, by re-visiting my experiences and challenges because I was expected to extol efficiency and professionalism. My repeated reading of Foucault and many others in graduate school, in fact, forces me to think that I am disciplined to perform or wear the professional academic attire, to which I question whether I should perform?

It is discomforting that we comply with the rigid norms of academic system and allow the academic grilling to impose upon us and direct us to work long hours for the accumulation of research wealth, which ultimately does not bring any real change to the society. The knowledge produced through the journal articles circulates within the academic circuits, does not reach or include the people on the margin or the grassroots organizations or the union workers. Then why should we write on neoliberal exploitation, workers struggles, alternative development if it does no good to the society. Again I ask, isn’t it chic to be radical? aren’t we dwelling in privileged enclosures? or how much are we doing to subvert these hierarchies?

Not only the numbers matter, but it is pertinent that the articles are published in highly regarded journals. We continue to struggle at the crossroads of contract positions, sordid salaries, restricted sabbatical opportunities and limited benefits, which force us to secure grants and assume other academic responsibilities. Often with all these additional chores that require prime attention, teaching backslides and almost always these academic commitments castigate us from our personal and family commitments. I recall that I worked for exhaustingly extended hours to coordinate, teach, supervise students and publish the required number of manuscripts, which took a remarkable toll on my health and rapidly diminished my time with my family. As a radical feminist, I juggle to get to grips with the academic exploitation that fashioned my academic ‘self’ to the efficiency and professionalism straitjackets.

“Cognitive labor is an idealized common because it is neither common across the hierarchy nor what tends to be common” and, I would love to have a romantic idea that there should not be any barriers across various kinds of work, paid or unpaid, ‘edu-workers’ versus factory workers or junior-contract-faculty members versus tenured professors. Unfortunately hierarchies exist, very prominently, and they revive through various practices that go on in the academic world, like the fact that scholars from recognized universities get well-placed and quickly get into tenure-track positions, whereas those from non-distinguished universities languish in contract positions year after year. It does not matter what experiences or skills the latter group can bring or that they have the necessary knowledge through similar four-year PhD training. What sells well in the end is the ‘name’ of the university and ‘who’ recommends the job market graduates. Deskilling or devaluation across work, bluntly, continues within the walls of our universities. The edu-labor is constantly ranked, divided, disciplined and hierarchized in our phallocentric knowledge enclosures. The abstract student body is stratified and mapped based on the labels that are placed on them which mark the reproduction of racism and patriarchy, if not capitalism. This makes me question, are academics not re-living the very capitalism and exploitation that they loathe? Therefore, in our academic system, grilling persists in various layers and in many forms.

It’s also important to point out that, with globalization, our boundaries have become fluid with an increase in movement of people, information, technology, and knowledge, but the zones of cultural difference have become permeable and even crumpled. It is not only a challenge for the students to acknowledge historical developments, social and racial formations, politics of knowledge and power and the unidirectional eurocentric cultural-economic-political dominance over other cultures but a pivotal challenge for educators “to link culture to the practice of a substantive democracy”. I outline this because I have experienced discomfort and insecurities and even fear when I analyzed the politics of war and resource exploitation, covert state-development agendas, racist environmental policies to student groups; I was unaware the extent to which the top administrators would signal the importance of matters of gender, ethnicity, class and culture or to what extent the campus climate would be tolerant to radicalism, feminism, anarchism or socialism. Hence as a feminist immigrant-of-color, staying on contract positions practicing radical geographies in predominantly male-white academic systems was demanding. Nevertheless I vehemently confirm that if our universities have been converted into prison-like enclosures that primarily respond to capital generation, where tuition fees are staggering, faculties are underpaid, and zero-benefit contract or adjunct faculty positions are generously increasing; if academic labor is ‘sold-out’ in the academic labor market for the accumulation of academic capital; if students are trained to be future knowledge gizmos for capital and life-long corporate consumers, if the tenure or hiring process still continues to be repressive, then as radical academics we have failed. Furthermore, whatever ideologies we are rooted in need to resist the mass-mutation and corruption of the academic system.

No matter what amount of fear and unforeseen trouble academics encounter, it is highly important for radical academicians and those on the left to find ways for the deconstruction of the popular media and politically misconstrued images and discourses of the reality, agency, identity and culture. Academics have to work on research that improves the lives of the people on the margin; organize against all forms of exploitation, in solidarity, with students and people in-the-bottom; promote intellectual freedom; facilitate social critique; encourage academic socialism; thwart provincialism. And most importantly, radical academics have to practice what they preach within the walls of the universities or conference halls. In our self-interest to stay alive in the academic system, we have become self-indulgent where our mental conscience to do for the real people and the real world regresses in front of our tremendous zeal to exist in academia, hence it is expedient to intervene and in concerted fashion change the all-encompassing capitalist system we are fenced into.


[1] United Nations University and Maastricht School of Governance, Netherlands



  1. Kean

    Hi Sutapa,

    Thanks for the interesting essay, it’s good to see more discussion of these issues. It looks like they’ve come to a boil over the last few years as secure jobs in academia become harder and harder to get.

    I find myself in a rather privileged position as I have a tenure-track post at a Canadian university, although my last department (in the UK) is currently being run-down prior to closure so I appreciate the developments you’re discussing. Exploitation is very much built into the higher education system, as you outline, and it is even more evident over in North America. I wrote a brief piece about this here:

    In terms of new academics, I helped to co-write a piece for the journal Antipode recently in which we tried to outline some ways to challenge the work / labour assumptions underpinning academia. You might find them interesting (or maybe not):

    In particular, I think that building writing collectives would be an immediate way to fight several issues you raise – e.g. corporate enclosures of knowledge, public engagement (for want of a better phrase), etc. It would involve a very different academic socialization process than we’re currently used to, however.

    I think that simply understanding this academic socialization process is incredibly important, as you highlight. I don’t necessarily think that the socialization process is all problematic though. In some ways, academics go through an apprenticeship (with all the problems that entails, yes) in which we learn the skills necessary to perform as an academic but are not formally taught (e.g. grant writing, how to referee, how to deal with the publishing process, how to apply for jobs, how to teach, etc.). If we don’t get socialized as academics then we don’t learn these skills and are, consequently, unlikely to get jobs in academia.

    [On a personal note, I think that the ‘quality’ of the university you go to does not determine whether you can get tenure or not. In some ways it provided me with more incentive to write and get published. It is my sneaking suspicion that getting a job largely depends on whether your PhD and later research is particularly ‘sexy’ or ‘of the moment’, which means that some people will always encounter difficulties while others won’t – i.e. all knowledge is equal, but some knowledge is more equal than others].

  2. kean

    Thanks Kean, I highly appreciate the time you spend on reacting to this article, most importantly reading it. Your thoughts are genuine, sincere and serious and are in lines with my observations, probably challenges. And I hope you would not find my reactions nauseating – what I find problemmatic in academia is that we are forced to perform in a ‘certain way’ and hence I add that it is ‘neoliberal’ academic ‘system’ because we are disciplined to ‘perform’ in a certain way to exist in the market-style universities – today’s universities are nothing different that prison enclosures, we are sort of trapped in it. A lot has been written on how academic assessment should change or should be done, what tenure process and hiring process should prioritize and what it should n’t; how to precisely gauge the knowledge of fresh graduates and junior faculties over traditional/apparent benchmarks – but how much of that is followed/or do we want to follow? what still matters is how many grants you have, where have you published, how many sausages have you kicked out (how fast) and where you stand in the rat-race. I seriously understand that our academic system the way it stands now, should ‘change’ for good, because if it doesn’t then we are ‘sold-out’ to corporates and we should happily accept that. Unfortunately it is a class-war within the academic system, hierarchies, hegemonies, power games – any amount of injustice that’s going on in our societies today mirrors academia. I am very apologetic for reacting, but I cannot tone down my ire.

  3. sutapa

    Hi Kean, got a chance to read both the articles you forwarded. The alternatives you have outlined in your writings are exactly the kinds, I have been thinking and most of us in this collective. Would you like to be interviewed? Because your insights would be of incredible help to junior scholars and scholar activists. I have posted your article at the classwaru site ( Loads of thanks for sharing.

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