Dangers lurk in the march towards a post-modern career

A bushwalker found his body at the bottom of Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains in early August. The previous day he’d caught the train from Summer Hill where he lived and travelled to Blackheath. CCTV camera footage showed him with the bicycle and backpack that the police later found locked up at the top of the valley. John Dalton – the ‘unknown scholar’ – philosopher, contrarian, a member of the academic precariat had taken his own life.

It was a solitary death: no living relatives, no partner, no will or suicide note. The legal process was complicated and a small group of friends dealt with police, coroner and funeral arrangements. It seems that few people were very close to him in the last months and that he confided little to anyone about his state of mind.

But we know enough to tell his story – and that unemployment was part of it. In his mid forties, John had worked as a casual university tutor since finishing his PhD in philosophy fifteen years ago. Passed over a few times for tenured jobs, he was a long-term member of the academic reserve army, the members of which perform around half of the undergraduate teaching in Australia’s universities.

But this semester no offer of work came through from any of the universities he had worked for over the years. There was no income to pay the rent, and John was deprived of institutional anchorage for his vocation.

When a full-time worker loses their job their employers must at least give them notice and pay them their entitlements. But for casuals, there is nothing. No acknowledgment of their long-term service, no indication of their future prospects. For John, and other victim of this year’s downturn in university enrolments, there was just silence.

As a casual you inhabit the zombie zone beyond the ivory towers– never fully asleep, nor awake – a temporary colleague at best. You have no office and are not invited to staff meetings and rarely to seminars. The university will probably shut down your email account and library borrowing rights at the end of each teaching session. At that point you become the unattached intellectual contriving the appearance of a career without a place to locate it.

The advocates of the neo-liberalism suggest that is how it should be. Their vision is of a world of restless freelancers living off their wits project-to-project. The post-modern career is self-assembled.

Skills and jobs don’t last long and so unlike their grandparents, Gen Y can’t rely on solid Fordist guarantees. Instead they must dance on hot coals, reinventing themselves towards emerging labour markets, prostituting their ambitions. To fulfil the new economy fantasy they must become the entrepreneurial, ‘frictionless’ workers, mobile and free from the ballast of personal ties.

This might suit the youthful graphic designer or the hipster running a digital start-up but it rarely suits the scholar. For the philosopher, the cultural theorist, the sociologist, the pure scientist, the university provides an exoskeleton protecting them from the ravages of the market.

Those who challenge common sense and whose work isn’t easily turned into commodities are vulnerable in these times. By contrast, people with skills more easily marketable beyond the academy rarely tolerate casual labour for very long.

But they also rarely speak truth to power. That is the job of people like John, who deserve the refuge for academic freedom that stable university employment provides. He was a man of fierce intellect and sardonic wit – think Gore Vidal or Peter Cook – whose demanding teaching schedule gave him little time to develop his research career. The philosophers are the most robust and vulnerable intellectuals – with nothing outside the academy to house their craft

In a paper John wrote for Contretemps, a journal that he helped found, he quoted French intellectual Georges Bataille:

If I want my life to have meaning for myself, it must have meaning for someone else. Someone else must respond. The meaning must be shared and understood in a language or an idiom.

Yet for the academic piece worker, the scholarly vagabond tramping his trade around the campuses, that meaning-making was a fragile and precarious process.

Over the next year unions and managers in Australia’s universities will negotiate new enterprise agreements, and academic job security must once again be top of the agenda. In the twenty-seven years since I began working in universities casualization of academic work has been inexorable and shows no sign of ending.

John’s demise shows that this process produces victims. It raises a troubling ethical question: what sort of society are we if, after encouraging gifted people to climb and strive, to obtain awards, degrees and the esteem of their peers, we tell them that there is nothing for them at the pinnacle of achievement but a treadmill of poverty and institutional indifference?

To listen to the small-minded utilitarians and pontificating technocrats who sit in our nation’s Parliament, you would think that function of higher education was nothing more than skills training for the new economy. Yet while ruminations on Feuerbach or Kant may not make Australia more competitive in a global market, they might help make the world a better place nonetheless.

George Morgan is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts, Western Sydney University