Cripping The Exhaustion Economy

Radically Reimagining the Neoliberal Academy from the Sick Bed

A person lying in bed with hands on open laptop, bookcase in background

Radically Reimagining the Neoliberal Academy from the Sick Bed

A person lying in bed with hands on open laptop, bookcase in background

This website contains information and updates on research led by Prof. Bethan Evans, funded by an ISRF Political Economy Fellowship

The project outlined on this website aims to develop a ‘Crip’ Political Economy approach to understand the dual problems of burnout and ableism in the UK neoliberal academy. Responding to the crisis of chronic overwork, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the rise in long-term chronic illness due to Long Covid, the project’s central thesis is that academics living with Energy Limiting Conditions / Chronic Illness (ELC/ELCI), can offer vital insights into the operation of neoliberal capitalism within UK academia as an ‘exhaustion economy’.

What are Energy Limiting Conditions (ELC) / Chronic Illnesses (ELCI) and Energy Impairments?

Image showing energy impairment
Image by Nifty Fox Creative for Chronic Illness Inclusion

The term ELCI was established by Chronic Illness Inclusion (CII) in 2020 (Hale, 2021), providing a means to consider shared experiences across chronic conditions in which energy impairment and debilitating fatigue are key symptoms (e.g. neurological, musculoskeletal, auto-immune diseases, ME/CFS, fibromyalgia and Long Covid). According to 2018 estimates by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP, 2023), 1 in 3 disabled people of working age in the UK experienced such symptoms. The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly increased this population with, as of 1st October 2022, around 2.2million people in the UK (3.4% of the population) living with Long Covid (ONS, 2022). People with ELCI are a large and growing section of the disabled population. As CII explain, the experience of energy impairment is more than just feeling tired: “There’s a reason we call it energy impairment, and not just fatigue. Fatigue in both medical and general contexts, is seen as a subjective sensation of tiredness that you can push through. Medical science unfortunately lacks the tools to differentiate fatigue in healthy populations, … from fatigue found in chronic disease. But fatigue in chronic illness is qualitatively and biologically different from universal fatigue or tiredness. So the term energy impairment, is used to convey this difference.” (Hale, 2021). For more information see this explanation by CII

What does ‘cripping’ mean?

Crip Theory developed from disability and queer activism. Like the reclamation of ‘queer’ as a marker of pride when once it was used as an insult, Crip is reclaimed from the ableist slur ‘cripple’ and used as a marker of pride and community identity. Crip theory offers a radical political approach which questions how neoliberal capitalism reproduces ‘compulsory ablebodiedness and ablemindedness’, i.e. how institutional structures and practices are designed to function for non-disabled people. It also asks why people most impacted by processes or policies are often not included in the shaping of those structures. Crip theory therefore provides a place to centre disabled and chronically ill people’s experiences and to ask what those experiences might allow us to understand and imagine differently. As Robert McRuer (2012) explains, “queer and crip activisms share a will to remake the world, given the ways in which injustice, oppression, and hierarchy are built (sometimes quite literally) into the structures of contemporary society”. As such, this project is not only interested in documenting people’s current and past experiences, but also asks how we might radically reimagine the neoliberal academy based on the expertise and experiences of people with energy impairment. This project builds on Rees’s (2021) suggestion that ‘the sick bed’ is an ideal place from which to theorise and critique neoliberal capitalism, recognising that capitalist relations are central to ableism. In short, the project asks what insights the experiences of those of us who are utterly exhausted might offer into how to make academic work more accessible and less exhausting?

The exhaustion economy and systemic ableism

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated levels of burnout in UK academia. High levels of exhaustion, however, pre-date the pandemic, shaped by decades of marketisation, hightened competition, and increased use of precarious and casualised employment. In fact on the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) psychosocial hazard categories, staff working in UK Higher Education report lower wellbeing than average, and over 60% of staff report working over 40hrs a week. The political economy of higher education is characterised by capitalist hyperproductivity and neoliberalisation and it both produces debilitated bodies- and excludes many disabled people. For disabled academics, systemic ableism continues to impact job retention and career progression (Horton and Tucker, 2014). Only 5% of academic staff have disclosed a disability (HESA, 2022) and only 1% of UKRI grants went to disabled PIs in 2019-20 (UKRI, 2021). These are not disconnected phenomenon, “in an age when even the “well” buckle under the demands of academia, the chronically ill or disabled are rarely able to jump the hurdles required” (Rees, 2021, p. 27).

An image illustrating cognitive fatigue in ELC. We see an illustration of a woman's head and shoulders, fragmented into pieces. Three internet browser tabs hover next to her. In front of her face, three images capture different aspects of cognitive fatigue. One says "Disorientation" with an abstract image of a confused face. One says "slow processing" with an image of a tortoise. One says "Brain fog" with an image of a head in profile with a question mark in the location of the brain. The caption for the image says "Like a computer with too many tabs open."
Image by Nifty Fox Creative for Chronic Illness Inclusion
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