Manifesto of the Precarious International
A specter is haunting the European academia — the specter of the Academic Precariat. All the powers of old academia have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter: Rectors and provosts, third-party funders and evaluation steering committees, elite scientific societies and excellence clusters.
Where is the academic precariat in opposition that has not been decried as “not good enough” by its opponents in the academic establishment? Where is the contingent staff that has not been infantilized as ‘early-career researcher’ by its reactionary adversaries, i.e. the tenured faculty?
Two things result from this fact:
- The Academic Precariat is already acknowledged by all academic establishment to be itself a power.
- It is high time that the precarious academics should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Specter of the Academic Precariat with a Manifesto of the Precarious International itself.
To this end, precarious researchers of various nationalities have assembled in Berlin and sketched the following manifesto, to be published in English only, because – let’s face it – we are not in the 19th Century and the English language has effectively monopolized academic knowledge production a long time ago.
Chapter I. Tenured Aristocracy and Academic Precariat
The history of all hitherto existing academia is the history of class struggles, disguised as academic qualification periods and swept under the rug by the rhetoric of passion and intrinsic motivation.
Professor and post-doc, chair and regular faculty, male and female researchers, native staff and foreign/guest/migrant/exiled scholars, able-bodied vs. disabled academics, Cis-gender vs. queer faculty, in a word, privileged and disadvantaged, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted (but mostly hidden and rarely open) fight – a fight that never ended in a revolutionary reconstitution of academia at large, but is very likely to result in the common ruin of the University as we know it.
In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of university into various orders, a manifold gradation of academic rank. In the late Middle Ages, masters, lectors, acolytes; in early modern university, chairs, seminarists, doctoral candidates – and in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.
The Neoliberal University that has sprouted from the ruins of the welfare era has not done away with academic hierarchy. It has but established new dependencies, new conditions of intersectional discrimination, new forms of labor devaluation in place of the old ones.
Our epoch, the epoch of the Neoliberal University, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms in academia. University as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — the Tenured Aristocracy and the temporarily employed Academic Precariat.
The discovery of fixed-term contracts, the expansion of project-based short-term hiring practices, opened up fresh ground for the restructuration of the sphere of knowledge production. The creation of the aggressively competitive European Higher Education Area and the mushrooming of profit-oriented degree programs in Europe, the injection of student debt in the US, the launching of off-shore programs to milk the upper-middle class students in the former colonies, the decrease in public funding and the consequent overdependence on external funding, gave to market-oriented research and academic careerism an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the counter-revolutionary element in the tottering quasi-feudal university, a rapid decay.
The quasi-feudal system of academia, in which scientific production was monopolized by closed disciplinary “guilds”, now no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets. The gigantic third-party funding industry and joint business-university projects (Verbundprojekte) took its place. The “guild-masters” were pushed on one side by the metric-obsessed administrative class; division of labor between the different disciplinary guilds vanished in the face of division of labor in each single project team and evaluation steering committee.
Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising. Even universities no longer sufficed. Thereupon, excellence institutes and elite scientific societies took over. The place of research was taken by the giant corporate funding industry; the place of the “tweed-jacket-elbow-patch professor” by a sociopathic managerial class obsessed with global rankings and pseudo-international agreements and by business-minded PIs – short: by the Neoliberal Academic Aristocracy.
The commodification of higher education has stripped the University of its halo. It has converted the PhD-holder, the researcher, the people of science into its poorly paid (or often unpaid) and temporarily employed gig-workers, who still refuse to see themselves as workers due to the academia’s entrenched illusions about its alleged exceptionality. Unfortunately, even the 19th Century proletariat, to which the original Manifesto was addressed, was more conscious than today’s academics, who love to preach about class consciousness and workers’ struggles in the classroom but fail to recognize their own misery.
The hyper-competitive neoliberal academic industry cannot exist without constantly curtailing permanent positions and eliminating critical degree programs as non-profitable, and thereby creating massive redundancy and stimulating destructive competition, and thus undermining the peer relations of the faculty. Conservation of the old modes of scientific production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier scholarly communities. Constant staff turnover, uninterrupted disturbance of all collegial relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the neoliberal epoch from all earlier ones. All permanent, fast-frozen academic posts, with their benefits and social securities, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify – not the least because they are mostly temporary, project-based gigs and not real academic posts. All that is solid melts into air, all that is tenured is becoming contingent, and the academics are at last compelled to face with sober senses their real conditions of life, and their relations with knowledge.
But not only has the academic establishment forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence those who are to wield those weapons — the ever-expanding reserve army of disposable PhD-holders — the Academic Precariat.
As academic job security was gradually undermined on a global scale within the last three to four decades, the Academic Precariat, the contingent majority, developed — a class of laborers, who live only so long as they find research funding, and who find funding only so long as their labor increases capital. Unlike the 19th Century proletariat, these sub-academic laborers must sell themselves not as piecemeal, but as a whole – including their political views, their teaching and communication skills, their social networks, their passion and intrinsic motivation. And yet, like the 19th Century proletariat, they, too, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.
Owing to the extensive use of standardized evaluation criteria, and to the division of labor that imposes upon the non-tenured faculty the more routine, insignificant and less rewarding functions such as undergrad teaching and infrastructural project work, while the tenured faculty is granted the luxury to focus on prestigious research activities, the work of the academic precarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the intellectual artisan. The precarious academic becomes an appendage of the digitalized teaching machinery and the third-party projects, and it is only the most tedious, least acknowledged, and most easily replaced functions, that are required of them. Hence, the cost of production of a so-called “early-career” academic is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he/she requires for maintenance.
The Neoliberal University has converted the little department of the patriarchal chair into the great research and teaching factory of the post-industrial capitalist. Masses of contingent academic laborers, crowded into the lab and into the department, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the post-industrial research army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of administrative officers and evaluation sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the tenured aristocracy and of the university administration; they are daily and hourly enslaved by student evaluations, by metrics, and, above all, by publication indicators.
At this stage, the precarious researchers still form an incoherent mass scattered over the whole globe and broken up by their mutual competition. […] But with the development of market-oriented research, the academic precariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses. The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks, genders, and ethnic/national segments of the academic precariat are more and more equalized, in proportion as precarization gradually obliterates all distinctions and nearly everywhere reduces the labor market chances to the same low level.
Therefore, the academic anti-precarity movement has to address the intersectionality of many forms of exploitation and degradation at the universities, and strive to represent the interest of all so-called “minorities”, if it is to become the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense faculty majority, in the interest of the immense faculty majority, which constitutes 68% in the UK, ca. 50% in Denmark, 75% in the US, and 92% in Germany. Those numbers shall give you an idea of the vast desolation even in the so-called leading scientific countries to which now also the threatened/displaced/exiled scholars flock from all over the world, in the sad hope of continuing their careers in security. Alas, they are bound to join the ranks of the huge reserve army of disposable academic workforce in the receiving countries. As such, they are factually united with the domestic precariat in un-/under-employment and vulnerability. These two segments of the surplus labor force – the migrant/exiled/guest/displaced scholars and the native academic underclass – are deliberately separated by the academic establishment through quarantine terms like “endangered scholar” and by the still-very-much-nationalistic criteria of academic qualification. The entire academic status quo is maintained by the deliberate and multiple fragmentation of this precarized underclass along the lines of rank, alma mater, profitability of discipline, gender, (dis)ability, ethnicity, and citizenship status. Thus, the academic precariat, the lowest stratum of our present university, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of academic establishment, as well as the exploitative employment practices and abusive work culture from which it benefits, being sprung into the air.
The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the academic establishment is the formation and augmentation of profitable research; the condition for profitable research is contingent academic labor. Contingent labor rests exclusively on competition between the non-tenured researchers. The advance of market-oriented research and temporary employment, whose involuntary promoter is the tenured aristocracy, replaces the isolation of the precarious academics, due to competition, with revolutionary solidarity, due to shared precarity and vulnerability. The development of the Neoliberal University, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the academic establishment produces and appropriates products. What the academic establishment therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the Academic Precariat are equally inevitable, that is, not inevitable at all, unless we recognize what binds us and organize to fight internationally.
Adaptation from the original: