OER, capital and critical social theory

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 30 January 2011

In his post on Openness, Socialism, and Capitalism, David Wiley argues for the reform of a particular form of capitalism within education that should enable taxpayers to recover the value of OER-as-commodity, in the same way that they would receive the value of any other commodity in a functioning market. Wiley argues that “The symmetry of the transaction is part of the fundamental social contract that allows markets to function.” Joss Winn has already argued that Wiley has misunderstood the historically-situated significance of capitalism and OER, and has demonstrated the complex nature of the (OER-as-)commodity form through which capital can extract relative surplus value from labour and, within the context of capitalist work, how the production of OERs is a way in which capital uses technology to discipline labour.

There are two ways in which this analysis of OERs might be developed further. The first is in the need to situate OERs within the totality of critical social theory as applied to education, rather than simply treating them as fetishised commodities or shareable goods. The second relates to how their development connects to an increasingly neoliberal higher education that is being exported from the West to “developing” nations, as part of a social contract enforced upon them, through for instance the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programme, and which is a form of primitive accumulation.

Wiley argues that within a perfectly-functioning capitalism our purchasing habits “are all governed by our common understanding of this commonsense behavior society expects of us”, namely that we get a commodity to the value of what we pay for it. However, Winn has demonstrated that the market doesn’t operate in this way, and that the effects of coercive competition are to make more complex the effects of costs, relative surplus value and profit throughout the supply chain, so that the commodity purchased realises more than just its price. The alleged social contract in this space is not neutral or of a fixed composition. It is eternally shifting depending upon the dictates of private property (who owns the means of production or the commodity), and the way in which value is realised/optimised. Moreover, the commodity also reveals the social relations of capitalist work that underpin this contract. The current clamour over petrol price rises in the UK highlights this, where we see competing interests, a fluctuating cost and price based on a variety of supply- and demand-side inputs, government intervention and geo-politics all intervening between the consumer and the commodity.

Into this, we cannot abstractly throw a concept like openness and hope that it can/will humanise capital. The domination of space and time by capital and the social relations that are revealed by it, demonstrate that openness is an illusion. Openness in the production, sharing and reuse of commodities, in the face of coercive competition that forms a treadmill for the production of value, needs to be analysed in relation to power. Who controls the means of production has the power to frame how open are the relations for the production or consumption of goods or services, in order to realise value. Capital needs to valorise and reproduce itself. The totality of this need, rather than the rights of taxpayers, shapes how human values like openness are revealed and enabled.

Therefore, central to this view of the value of OER, or for that matter openness – either to consumers or taxpayers – is to place it within the totality of capitalist work. Lukács identified the value of critical social theory in providing a totality of historically-situated social reproduction that was all-pervasive. In Volume I of Capital, Marx noted

Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.

Within this totality, the parts of the system acquire properties that have meaning, in relation to their connections that are uncovered through dialectical analysis. Without such a dialectical analysis all we are left with is a desperate hope that we can make the elements of capitalist work that we deem to be dysfunctional work more humanely or correctly or perfectly. Yet as as Žižek argues, our liberal aim “to democratise capitalism, to extend democratic control to the economy by means of media pressure, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations and so on” is doomed to fail. The socialism to which Wiley loosely points would be one such attempt to rework market capitalism in the favour of labour or the taxpayer. A more radical view is that OERs can never be a representation of, or a catalyst for, a means of humanising capitalist education. The more radical view is that, in deconstructing one element of education, like the OER, we require a critique of its place in the whole edifice of capitalist education as a functionary of the system of capitalist work. From there we can position the development of radical alternatives, like who owns the value of the outputs of our labour-power.

In this view, OERs can be implicated in a broader totality or production, consumption and re-production of social relations, which is historically situated with capitalism. Winn notes the importance of this when he notes that “capitalism is not isolated to private trade or the markets but impacts all aspects of a capitalist society. It is a social totality subservient to the production of value.” This totality is in constant flux and motion, and reveals what Marx termed ‘the annihilation of space by time’. This control over technology, in order to speed the production of relative surplus value and the circulation of commodities, is one means by which the reproduction of capitalist work can be assured.

A critique of the place of OER within capitalist work is critical to engaging with the idea of the University and higher education in the face of neoliberalism. The dominant position here is currently ‘sustainability’, which is a cipher for extending relative surplus value. In the face of this, Winn states that “When we talk about the sustainability of OERs or business cases for the production of OERs, we’re talking about how to measure the value of this endeavour and usually this is through attracting external grants and raising the profile of the institution in some way”. For Wiley the matter seems to focus more upon “the basic principles of capitalism”, where payment for a service like education [e.g. taxation] is an entitlement to receipt of any and all outcomes possible from that payment, rather than that payment [taxation] forming part of a deeper social, and not personal, engagement. Thus the production of OERs through taxation demands “that these products either be placed in the public domain or licensed with an open license”.

However, what is currently being revealed, either in the US through the new federal education fund that is making available $2 billion to create OER resources in community colleges, or in the UK through the HEFCE Online Learning taskforce report, Seizing the Opportunity of online learning for UK higher education, is a focus upon accelerating the precepts that underpin growth or business-as-usual, with the attendant neoliberal threats that I outlined in my post on internationalisation and the shock doctrine. In particular, these focus upon the promotion of western higher education as a vehicle for market fundamentalism, cloaked in terminology like “value-for-money”, “efficiency and scale”, and “international demand and competition.” Given the scale of the global disruptions that we collectively face, this narrow focus on economic growth, driven by an agenda of debt reduction, privatisation, contract working, consumption and financialisation [or those structural adjustment programmes], seems illogical. However, it does seem easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

The current approach demonstrates a homogenised and Western-capitalist view of higher education, where OERs in Africa produces western case studies in English, where open case studies from Nestle are used as an exemplar of a single unifying corporate culture for development, or where McKinsey claim that there are elements of excellence in taxpayer-funded education that are generic and profitable. This space is framed by the necessity of economic growth. Where Prime Minister Cameron states that there is no alternative to the global free market liberalisation of trade, and where Western neoliberalism holds sway over those practices, what price openness in education funded by taxpayers? What price co-operation where coercive competition is demanded by those who require 3% growth? Higher education is framed by these dominant concerns.

Werner Bonefeld has recently written about the cuts agenda in the UK. He has argued that “It is a struggle against the reduction of life time to labour time. The fight against cuts is in fact a fight for a life.” This is the true nature of the struggle for the University and the place of our productive capability in that struggle. It is not the struggle to receive what we think we deserve in a market that alienates and impoverishes and immiserates on a global scale. It is not the struggle to assess how as consumers we recover the value we think we deserve from a commodity. It is the struggle to recover our power-to create our world that is at issue. In this we need to recognise how we critique what is done to us, and the totality of the spaces in which we produce and consume. This is about understanding how our wage labour and our labour-power sits in opposition to the power of capital. It is about how we have the power of emancipation in our ability to produce rather than simply to consume. That emancipation will never be revealed in our role as taxpayers. This is about control of the means of production and the spaces of consumption, shared in common, in the face of financial disorder and austerity, and capital’s quickening of the pace of privatisation. In fighting this, I am interested less in the value of what I consume as an individual through a social contract (that is in-turn the outcome of my ordered and governed life-as-labour), and more interested in my association with others in the creation of my life-world. In this we are reminded by Marx that it is:

only in association with others has each individual the means of cultivating his talents in all directions. Only in a community therefore is personal freedom possible… In a genuine community individuals gain their freedom in and through their association.


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