The Microentrepreneur of the Self

ONE THING IS FOR SURE: achieving a degree of autonomy from these processes of advanced capitalist valorization, modernization, and control by means of a strategic withdrawal of intellectual and bodily labor of the kind championed by the Autonomists—and more recently by Slavoj Žižek—is going to be difficult, if not impossible.[1] Although it is perhaps better suited to the Fordist means of production of the factory with its heavy reliance on presenteeism, there is still a certain amount of potential to adopt such a strategy in the public higher education system today, thanks in particular to the protection afforded by state legislation and the unions. Witness the example of Derek Sayer, a professor of cultural history at Lancaster University, who appealed against his inclusion in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), the system by which the quality of research in U.K. higher education institutions is assessed.[2] But apart from the fact that, as Sayer’s situation demonstrates, such quantification systems are capable of exploiting our labor whether we consciously opt into them or not (just as we are all on Facebook, regardless of whether we have signed up to join its social network), so any freelance individual microentrepreneur who assumes an attitude of noncompliance, nonproductivity, inactivity, laziness, silence, refusal, time wasting, or passive sabotage is unlikely to acquire the kind of rating and reputation score that is needed to retain a gig as an academic in a platform capitalist higher education market. She is quickly going to be found “metrically inadequate,” in John Holmwood’s memorable phrase.[3]

Faced by such a situation, it is all too easy to imagine fewer and fewer academics being prepared to take a chance on teaching the kind of critically inclined arts and humanities courses that run the risk of being rated as difficult, complex, or otherwise economically unproductive and unviable: say, because they are challenging the status quo (rather than merely servicing it) by exploring alternative social, political, and economic visions of the future that are indeed about more than work, consumption, and the generation of large profits for someone else to own privately. Instead, academics are likely to prefer to run courses in subjects that are perceived by student debtors-as-consumers as having the potential to help them gain a “good” job with a decent salary. They will thus be involved mainly in producing the type of unthreatening, lower-level, vocational “workers” that are needed by postwelfare capitalism (and which the current push on the part of many governments toward an “employability agenda” for much of higher education seems determined to generate) rather than the kind of educated public citizens or creative critical thinkers who are capable of maintaining some control over their own work and futures (and who therefore might not be quite so focused on the maximization of production and profit). Any future politicians, business leaders, scientists, or technologists who want an education of that nature will need to attend the kind of “leading” traditional university capable of surviving such disruption.

Yet the for-profit sharing economy acts on far more than the sphere of labor. It acts even on those elements of life that used to be beyond the control of the corporation—underused assets in those most private of spaces, people’s homes and cars—but also their sociability, their modes of self-presentation, their personalities. It is not just a political and economic system of management and control, then; it is a psychological one. In fact, the sharing economy is a regime of subjectification designed to produce a specific form of self-preoccupied, self-disciplining subjectivity: that of individuals who function as if they are their own freelance microenterprises. They are individuals who help to generate an environment that produces and valorizes particular modes of behavior by taking responsibility for managing their own employment, learning, health, and well-being in the circumstances created by postwelfare capitalism, with its weakening of social democracy and care. Indeed, because of the degree of surveillance, casualization, and debt they experience, these individuals have little opportunity to act otherwise, having lost the ability to plan and control their own futures. Consequently, they remain personable and positive, even when their way of life is rendered poor and precarious.

In this way, the platform capitalist sharing economy functions to transform us as citizens into connected yet atomized and dispersed individuals who develop our personalities as brands and endeavor to generate social, public, and professional value by acting as both microentrepreneurs and microentrepreneurs of our own selves and lives.[4] Consequently, the kind of setup I have outlined here regarding the development of an information and data intermediary business model for higher education will affect not just what courses academics teach but also who teaches them, together with the kind of life they can lead and people they can be. Homophily and the use of rating systems mean it is likely to be only certain individuals who will acquire regular work as academics in the for-profit sharing economy. They will be individuals who are similar to those who use these corporate platforms: who think similar things and are prepared to live and work in similar ways (without defaulting on debt, or ranting against rival supporters in front of a camera crew, as one off-duty lawyer did recently as he left a football match, resulting in the loss of his job with an international law firm). They will also be individuals who are capable of performing the necessary emotional labor to achieve a good student rating: who are smiley, friendly, lighthearted, and “genuine”—or at least capable of appearing to be in what amounts to a kind of forced informality and authenticity—and who are able to mirror the “natural” feel of much social media and so maintain a positive, if largely bland, profile and reputation.

Admittedly, there may be some who see advantages to operating as a freelance academic microentrepreneur for those who can successfully pull it off (and all the more so if they are lucky enough to live in a country with national health provision, an unconditional basic income for everyone, free child care, and other well-developed social safety nets). Doing so may offer more autonomy, independence, and control over the number of hours worked and when, making childcare arrangements easier, for example (although such flexibility has to be put into context: freelancers in the corporate sharing economy still have to operate according to the work allocation, timetable, and conditions set by their respective platform’s owners). There will certainly be little or no institutionally generated administration and bureaucracy. Such freelance microentrepreneurs may never again need to deal with a human manager face-to-face. (This is particularly important in view of the fact that having to deal with cab dispatchers and minicab controllers who decide who gets work and who doesn’t, often on the basis of favoritism and discrimination, is one reason some drivers have given for switching to Uber.) Nor will there be anything like the same pressure there is now on those in the traditional university system to apply for external funding—money that academics, in the arts and humanities especially, may not actually need for their research but that is required from them by their managers and administrators nonetheless to keep their institutions at the top of the league tables and other metrics. (So-called grant capture is becoming a standard contractual expectation for many at prestigious Russell Group universities in the United Kingdom.) Because CVs and past experience will be less relevant—it is people’s work and reputations that will matter now—higher education sharing economy businesses will have the further advantage of providing opportunities for work for those academics who are currently unable to obtain a post in a traditional university (e.g., because they have nontraditional qualifications or life experience; because they are considered to be too old; or because there aren’t enough positions available)—or who simply don’t want one, perceiving it as too dull and conservative. What is more, a 2015 study of the creative digital IT economy shows that many freelancers are actually paid more than their formally employed counterparts.[5]

Significantly, this study is not concerned with freelancers working for the information and data management intermediaries of the sharing economy. Many of the latter are laboring for less than the minimum wage, having lost a host of rights and benefits in the bargain. To be sure, when it comes to higher education, it is unlikely that individual microentrepreneurs will make enough money working for profit-driven postwelfare capitalist businesses to be able to afford to travel regularly to international conferences—or, indeed, replicate many of the other research-related advantages that come with being employed as a full-time academic in a traditional university. In fact, it is hard to see how research will find much of a place in a for-profit, higher education sharing economy ecosystem at all, especially when the whole point of such an ecosystem will be to offer less expensive teaching while at the same time maximizing the potential for revenue generation. One way of achieving the latter will be by stripping out the cost of paying for all functions other than teaching: precisely activities such as academic research and scholarship, in other words.

The freedom from heavy workloads that provides time for the intellectual contemplation, doubt, curiosity, creative absent-mindlessness, idleness, and apparent inefficacy that is needed to generate “original” research, certainly in the arts and humanities, is far more likely to be found in the established university system, where the primary goal is education, not profit. (This is why many artists and writers take jobs teaching in a university: as a way of paying their bills and supporting their creative output.) Yet this system is itself becoming increasingly restrictive and is making it more difficult for radical left academics in the arts, humanities, and softer social sciences to find space in which to maneuver, in part because their work does not lend itself quite so readily to being audited and measured and its economic impact assessed as does that of those in the more instrumental and applied harder sciences and quantitative social sciences. Consider the way the U.K. government is using the Research Excellent Framework (REF) and other control mechanisms to ensure (fundamental) research is carried out predominantly in centers of excellence located in the elite—what some hold to be the more politically and culturally conservative—“research intensives,” which are themselves becoming “increasingly audit intensive universities.”[6] (In such circumstances, the neoliberal drive to reduce “bureaucracy” and “inefficiency” is often used as an alibi for achieving concentration.) Meanwhile, because they are being encouraged to adopt the same values and practices as for-profit corporations (auditing, measurement, division of labor, routinization, casualization, contracting out), universities are themselves shifting much of their attention and resources away from teaching and research to focus on management, marketing, and income generation: “Between 2004 and 2010 the total number of students in UK universities increased by 9%. Over the same period the number of HE managers working in finance, marketing, widening participation, human resources, student services and quality assurance increased by 33%.”[7] Indeed, something approaching a symbiotic relationship is apparent here. The more the institutional labor force is encouraged by capitalism and its culture industries to demonstrate a “spirit of opposition to [traditional] assigned roles and an openness to change” by treating work as a form of individual, creative self-development and self-realization (i.e., as an expression of who they are as autonomous, flexible, networked individuals), the more this labor force requires an enlarged system of management and bureaucracy to oversee and control it.[8] In turn, those managers and administrators are demanding that academics act as entrepreneurs, both of themselves and of their research. And one way they are insisting academics do so is by bringing in money from external grants, the applied, practical, monetizable aims of which are steered by government—again putting those in the arts and humanities at a considerable disadvantage compared to their colleagues in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)—not least through its role in the appointment of the heads of the research funding bodies. In the context of this shift of focus within the public system of higher education, from teaching and research to academic entrepreneurship and income generation, it is worth noting the following facts as far as the United Kingdom is concerned:

—The Higher Education Funding Council for England is run by the chairman of a real estate firm.

—The Medical Research Council was previously run by a billionaire arms manufacturer and, since 2012, has been led by the former chairman and chief executive of the investment arm of Barclay’s Bank, who also oversaw the disastrous (for the public purse, at least) privatization of the Royal Mail.

—The Natural Environment Research Council was run by the head of a construction company and, since 2013, has been led by the man who steered AEA Technology plc, which is an offshoot of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, through its privatization.[9]

The Uberfication of the University by Gary Hall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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