Übercapitalism and What Can Be Done About It

'Übercapitalism and What Can Be Done About It' is my contribution to The University Is Ours: How To Build An Activist Union Branch, a handbook for activists put together by Des Freedman and Susan Kelly for the UCU Branch Solidarity Network, and published in October 2018. The whole handbook can be downloaded for free here.


We live in an increasingly übercapitalist society. It’s übercapitalist in that a specific version of neoliberalism, characterised by low pay, zero-hours and fixed-term contracts, is growing ever more aggressive (the prefix ‘über’ means ‘irresistible’, ‘higher’, ‘more powerful’); and that the disruptive technology firm Uber offers one of the most high-profile examples of this intensified form of deregulated capitalism in which work is becoming low in quality but high in risk and stress.

As recent court judgements against Uber and Pimlico Plumbers demonstrate, precarious workers are still able to fight for better conditions and win, no matter how irresistible these companies may seem. Yet the struggle against übercapitalism is not only a matter of returning to workers the employment rights they have lost as a result of outsourcing and casualisation. Just as business is innovating so we need to invent new strains of unionisation. 

The university is a particularly appropriate place to experiment with new techniques for organising labour. It was in the university, after all, that the artistic/entrepreneurial way of life that’s such a prominent feature of digital capitalism, with its emphasis on autonomy, self-management and the blurring of the distinction between work and play, was itself first developed. (Both Facebook and Google have their origins in the university, for instance.)

So how do we develop new forms of solidarity and collective bargaining in the context of übercapitalism? Union branch activists could begin by campaigning for all those working in the university, including students, to retain control of the knowledge and data they generate by placing it under a Peer Production License (PPL) or something similar. Such a licence would function to create a common stock of non-privately owned information that everyone in the institution would collectively manage, share, and be free to access and use on the same equal basis. For instance, it would allow universities as communities to decide that any for-profit business wishing to privatize and commodify their research and the related data must pay a fair price for it (rather than getting it cheaply or indeed for free as is frequently the case now), while also ensuring it remains openly available for use in the non-profit public sphere. 

Such an approach would make the academy far less vulnerable to disruption at the hands of any future HE equivalent of Uber. Adopted across the sector, it would enable universities to disrupt privately owned companies such as Elsevier and that have a business model resting on their ability to parasitically trade off publicly funded education and labour. 

Better working conditions could also be put into practice. Because any data would be collectively owned and governed, the rights of workers and students regarding such data could be protected – and discriminatory behaviours guarded against. Anything coming even close to the performance monitoring, surveillance and behavioural control of an übercapitalist outfit such as Amazon could be rejected. 

Most importantly, such a collaborative, commons-based approach to organising university labour would differ significantly from the hierarchical, top-down, wealth-concentrating ownership and management structure of most übercapitalist firms. The latter take great care to separate their for-profit business from the workers and users who generate it. In the former, however, those who do the work and generate the value – academics, researchers, students, librarians, technicians, managers, administrators, cleaners, caterers, security staff – would also own and control the knowledge and data on which the ‘business’ is built.

The university would then truly be ours.



Do We Need To Publish Fewer Texts By People From A Privately Educated Background? Five recommended readings for the This Is Not A Pipe podcast

Just over a week ago, I was interviewed by Chris Richardson for This Is Not A Pipe, a series of podcasts addressing issues in critical theory, cultural studies and philosophy. The episode, in which Chris and I discuss Pirate Philosophy, among other things, should be available online shortly. In the meantime, here is my response to the request Chris makes to each of his interviewees to provide 5 recommended readings to include on the website alongside the episode of the podcast in which they appear.  


Aldo Manuzio: Renaissance in Venice, edited by Guido Beltramini and Davide Gasparotto (Venice: Marsilio, 2016)

This is the catalogue of an exhibition held in Venice in 2016, five hundred years after the death of the scholar and publisher Aldo Manuzio. Recognized as the inventor of the modern book,  Manuzio’s edition of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, originally published in 1499, has been called the most beautiful volume ever printed. I don’t want to get into a beauty contest, but it’s definitely worth seeing if you ever get the chance. Gutenberg may have been the first to use the printing press and movable type in Europe, but it was Manuzio’s innovations in publishing that made print-on-paper books small and portable enough for individuals to read as part of their everyday lives.  His invention of a new material form for the book in 1501 - clear layout, readable italic typeface, pocket-sized in the octavo format, making his volumes easy to hold with one hand - thus helped to create a reading public and, with it, the public sphere.  It also paved the way for Cervantes’ invention, with the publication of the first volume of Don Quixote in 1605, of a new form of writing, the novel, and with it the modern world and subjectivity. All of which raises the question: what are the implications for subjectivity of the emergence, half a millennium later, of vast networked flows of information and data, of which projects such as This Is Not A Pipe and Media Gifts are of course a part?


Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (London: Verso, 2013)

Staying with the question of subjectivity, I’m interested in the emphasis Mouffe places in this book (available to download for free if you look in the right places: see below), on the role artistic practices have to play when it comes to the production of new subjectivities – the latter being one of the objectives of counter-hegemonic struggle for her. That said, if art is one arena in which we can experiment with new identities and new agential practices, it seems to me critical theory is another: it just needs to be far less bourgeois and commercially-oriented than it is at present. To use her own political philosophy against itself, it’s a shame that Mouffe - in common with many other theorists today - doesn’t seem particularly interested in experimenting with her own subjectivity. Indeed, for all the importance she attaches to working collectively and agonistically with regard to the existing institutions, Mouffe’s theory remains quite conventional in its form and practice. Witness her insistence on writing singularly authored, long-form, codex print books that she then makes available for commercial exploitation by the for-profit press Verso an all rights reserved basis, in accordance with a system of property exchange that is governed by the logic of capital and its individualistic, competitive ethos. Mouffe may provide us with a powerful critique of liberalism in the content of her books. Yet as her upholding of common-sense notions of the sovereign human subject, the named proprietorial author, originality, immutability and copyright shows, she continues to adhere to a liberal humanist model of what it is to be an academic and theorist when it comes to how she actually creates, publishes and disseminates her radical political philosophy.


The Sales Rep Will Be Right Back: Are Not Books & Publications as Performative Publishing, or Notes on Productive Non-Documentation (Texas: Are Not Books & Publications, 2018)

What alternative ways of working should we be exploring if we want to subvert the existing configurations of power and develop new subjectivities and new ways of life? The Radical Open Access Collective offers numerous examples of how we can engage agonistically, as Mouffe would put it, with those liberal democratic institutions through which most people come into contact with our work - the university, the library and scholarly publishing industry - in order to transform them and their associated practices, with a view to creating a chain of equivalence with other levels of struggle as part of a broader left political strategy. However, I want to place the emphasis here on a project I’m not associated with. So I’m recommending this volume from Are Not Books & Publications, a project that describes itself as both a publisher and an academic research program. The Sales Rep Will Be Right Back demonstrates how books can not only be descriptive but performative, right down to the level of the conferences and trade shows at which they’re exhibited… and given away, in the case of Are Not Books & Publications (which is how I came across them at the recent London Art Book Fair, held at the Whitechapel Gallery). When it comes to marketing their books, Are Not Books & Publications look to challenge the existing consensus by having as their goal ‘cultural transactions that are not based on competition, or the accumulation of capital’. Instead, they only care ‘about those who care’ and will take the time to seek them and their work out. Otherwise they prefer to ‘remain anonymous, and to acquire no reputation’. 


Tomislav Medak, Marcell Mars, Manar Zarroug, Paul Otlet, McKenzie Wark, Javna knjižnica/Public Library (Svibanj/Zagreb: Što, kako i za koga/What, How & for Whom, Multimedijalni institut/Multimedia Institute, 2015)

I would have like to have provided links to a multitude of ‘pirate’ or shadow libraries, such as, Monoskop and Library Genesis, as a means of offering further examples of projects that are not based on competition or the accumulation of capital. But perhaps I can compromise by choosing just one small book on the subject instead. Javna knjižnica/Public Library contains all the relevant information and urls. It’s published in a dual language edition (Croatian and English), and is freely available on an open access basis here. Marcell Mars and Tomislav Medak, the book’s two editors, themselves run a radical open access project of the same name: The Public Library. (Full disclosure: they’re also colleagues of mine in The Post Office postdigital arts and humanities research studio at Coventry University. Among other things, we’re working on reinventing the infrastructure of the city – including its public libraries - to produce a vision of the future that is less ‘smart’ and more multipolar and messy.)



Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature, edited by Isabel Waidner (Manchester: Dostoyevsky Wannabe Experimental, 2018)

If art is one place critical theory can draw inspiration when it comes to the construction of new subjectivities, literature is another. Not so much the bourgeois novels of Jonathan Franzen and Karl Ove Knausgaard, perhaps; nor even the more experimental writing of Tom McCarthy and Will Self. In fact, in her introduction to Liberating the Canon (published with the non-profit Dostoyevsky Wannabe), Isabel Waidner stresses just how white, middle class and patriarchal most experimental literature is, certainly in the UK – very much to the exclusion of (non-Oxbridge) BAME, LGBTQI, working class, migrant and other nonconforming identities. This brings to mind a modest bid on the part of Cery Matthews to counter the stalling of social mobility in the UK. The BBC Radio 6 presenter recently announced that she wants to program less music on her show by artists who have been given a leg-up over others in society as a result of attending a private, fee-paying school, and more music by people from all walks of life, including women and those from working-class backgrounds. This makes me wonder: if we want to encourage the production of radical new subjectivities, do we need to adopt a similar stance with regard to literature and the arts? Critical theory and philosophy? Even the academy in general? 

Waidner’s introduction, ‘Liberating the Canon: Intersectionality and Innovation in Literature’, is available open access here.

If you don't already know This Is Not A Pipe, you should check it out. There are episodes with Shannon Mattern and Tony D. Sampson among others, with Marie-Laure Ryan and Nick Sousanis coming up. 


CfP: Post-H(uman) index? Politics, metrics, and agency in the accelerated academy November 29th and 30th Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

CfP: Post-H(uman) index? Politics, Metrics, and Agency in the Accelerated Academy 


November 29th and 30th, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge 

Organised by Jana Bacevic, Mark Carrigan and Filip Vostal 

Keynote: Liberalism Must Be Defeated: The Obsolescence of Bourgeois Theory in the Anthropocene by Gary Hall, Director of Centre for Postdigital Cultures at Coventry University, UK. 

The conference seeks to conceptualise change in contemporary knowledge production in a way that transcends the dichotomy between theoretical frameworks that emphasise the role of humans (e.g. pragmatism, cultural sociology, critical realism, Bourdieusian sociology) and those that seek to dissolve the human and/or focus on non-human actors (actor-network theory, poststructuralism, STS, new materialism, transhumanism). Bringing together scholars in social sciences and humanities whose work engages with relationships between the human, post-human, metrics, and agency in the ‘neoliberal’ university, the conference addresses the methodological implications of how we theorise human agency, the agency of technical systems, and the relationships between them, in order to foster and support critical scholarship and engagement the current (and future) socio-political environment requires. 

It is by now widely accepted that the transformation of the structures of governance and funding of higher education and research – including pressures to produce more and faster, and the associated proliferation of instruments of measurement such as citation (‘H’) indexes and rankings – pose serious challenges to the future of the academia. The critique of these trends has mostly taken the form of calls to ‘slow down’, or assertion of the intrinsic value/unquantifiable character of scholarship, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. While these narratives highlight important aspects of academics’ experience of neoliberal restructuring, they often end up reproducing the inter- and intra-disciplinary division between theoretical and interpretative frameworks that foreground human agency (focusing on student movements, working experiences of academics, or decision-making) and those that foreground the performativity of non-human agents (focusing on the role of metrics, indexes, analytics or institutions). 

This intellectual fragmentation constrains attempts to study these processes in genuinely interdisciplinary ways. On the rare occasions when meaningful exchange does happen, conceptual, ideological, and institutional fault lines hinder sustained dialogue, often leading to the reassertion of old certainties in lieu of engagement with complex relational, institutional, socio-technical, and political/policy realities of transformation. The conference aims to provide an intellectual and institutional framework that challenges this dichotomy, and seeks to develop ways of thinking that are mutually reinforcing, rather than exclusive. It focuses on the issue of the (post)human as the ontological underpinning to the descriptive and explanatory work needed, as well as the normative horizon for resistance. 

It links with preceding events in Accelerated Academy, an international interdisciplinary network assembled to develop new approaches to the analysis of higher education around critical interrogation of the concept of ‘acceleration’. The first event (Prague, December 2015) focused on metricisation and power in the academy; the second, smaller symposium (Warwick, September 2016), was dedicated to theories and experiences of anxiety and work in relation to acceleration; the third (Leiden, December 2016) to the politics and sociology of evaluation in universities; the fourth (Prague, May 2018) explored academic timescapes and the challenges posed by their complexity; the fifth (Cambridge, June 2018) reflected on the role of agency in the transformation of the academy. 

This conference engages with and responds to the growing interest in scholarship on trans- and post-humanism, and its impact on understanding change in the context of knowledge production. It also has wider theoretical significance, as the intellectual dichotomy of the human and non-human is confronted in any attempt to understand socio-technical changes unfolding in digital(ised) capitalism. In this sense, we aim to address broader questions of social ontology and explanatory methodology posed by the imbrication of the social and the technical, and, not less importantly, the questions this raises for conceptualising agency and resistance in the ‘accelerated’ academy. 

We invite contributions for 30 minute talks which speak to any of these themes. If you would like to submit a proposal then please contact with a 500 word abstract and short biographical note by September 30th. There will be no charge to attend the conference.



Postdigital Intimacies symposium: 19 July 2018, Coventry University

Postdigital Intimacies Symposium

Date: Thursday 19 July 2018 

Time: 11:00am - 4:30pm - Includes Lunch

(Post Symposium Drink at Drapers Bar & Kitchen from 5pm) 

Location: The Grass, DMLL, Lanchester Library, Centre for Postdigital Cultures (CPC), Coventry University

The postdigtial intimacies symposium brings together a network of researchers at Coventry University and our wider global networks who are looking to make sense of how we relate to ourselves and to others in complex, anxious, unequal worlds. This symposium will be the beginning of a collaborative, negotiated and participatory collective, which will look to define new questions about and how we shape of intimacies into the future. 

Engage with us online via twitter: @CovUni_CPC

The registration page is also available now 



Research Fellow, Centre for Postdigital Cultures

The Centre for Postdigital Cultures (CPC) is a new Faculty Research Centre at Coventry University. We are looking to recruit a developer with knowledge of new technologies such as Xtended Reality and those associated with open access publishing. Our Research Fellow/developer will be equally happy with building platforms as they are with contributing to funding bids and academic papers. The person we employ will be involved in all technical aspects of the Research Centre from uploading website content to creating virtual reality scenarios and will have the people skills to work with those at all levels of technical understanding.

You will be qualified in object oriented programming languages such as c#, c++, Java, Java scripts and swift with proven experience of development in modern web development languages like PHP and HTML5. Plus you will possess some experience in 2D/3D modelling using software such as 3DS max and Photoshop and Maya for digital asset creation and Unity 3D or Unreal game engines for developing game-based and immersive experiences.

This is the chance for you to join the CPC team in the early stages of growth and to play a significant role in the development of impactful research activity within the emerging field of postdigital cultures. Led by Professor Gary Hall, the Centre explores how innovations in postdigital cultures can enable 21st century society respond to the challenges it faces at a global, national and local level.  

  • how we receive, consume and process information
  • how we learn, work, and travel
  • how we engage and regenerate our communities and cities  

 What Do We Mean By Postdigital Cultures?

"The digital" can no longer be understood as a separate domain of media and culture. If we actually examine the digital - rather than taking it for granted we already know what it means - we see that today digital information processing is present in every aspect of our lives. This includes our global communication, entertainment, education, energy, banking, health, transport, manufacturing, food, and water-supply systems. Attention therefore needs to turn from "the digital", to the various overlapping processes and infrastructures that shape and organise the digital, and that the digital helps to shape and organise in turn.

The CPC investigates such enmeshed digital models of culture, society, and the creative economy for the 21st century "post digital" world.

Research Areas covered by the centre include:

  • Post-capitalist Economies
  • Post-humanities
  • Affirmative Disruption and Open Media
  • Immersive and Playful Cultures, Creative Archiving and International Heritage
  • Digital Arts and Humanities
  • The 21st Century University and Art School

Members of the CPC include Janneke Adema, Adrienne Evans, Valeria Graziano, Kaja Marczewska, Marcel Mars and Miriam de Rosa. 

The role of the Research Fellow Developer is to plan, develop and manage collaborative and individual research projects, using their specialist technical skills. 

This will include implementing new technology platforms and applications integral to the research projects of the CPC (for example, those associated with open access publishing and immersive XR technology) which address issues at an international scale using research as a driving force for global change.  It is also to develop ideas for generating income and to seek funding opportunities for routes to disseminate research findings that inform teaching and build the reputation of the University whilst advancing knowledge in the field.

The Job Description and Person Specification is available here.
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