The true cost of openness

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 1 September 2011

Closure and exclusion

Following his leadership of the successful Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) occupation and work-in of 1971-72, the Communist and trades unionist Jimmy Reid was elected as Rector of the University of Glasgow. In his Rectoral Address Reid argued that

Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today… it is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making.

Since May 2010 the UK’s Coalition Government have been quickening the pace of enclosure of our public spaces; of our exclusion from the preserved, open and shared places in which our society is re-invented. Within this process of exclusion and of enclosing space and time (both the present and, collapsed into it, the future), debt presents itself as a cold and calculating means of collectivised, individual indenture. And the formal, historical University as a site of social contribution, that once lay within and yet against the calculating, coercion of accumulation and the market is closed down within that very logic.


And in that logic, the processes of exclusion, enclosure and indenture are violent. They do violence to the history of the University. They do violence to the hope and to the reality of higher learning as an escape from socio-environmental crisis. As a result they do violence to the possibility of our collective being and becoming. They do violence to us.

Incarceration (or the kettle)

It is in this violent, enclosing space that the activities of the University emerge and are re-produced. It is in this space that higher learning and its social relationships cycle and re-cycle. It is in this space then that “open” risks becoming a fetish, closed to critique and uncritically cloaked in a veneer of co-production, or sustainability, or value-for-money, or efficiency. It is as if “open” or “openness” offers us liberation or emancipation within the coercive, competitive reality of capital power-over our labour. It is as if “open” might reshape the activities of higher education, in spite of the shackling of the University to accumulation by dispossession and the dictates of the market. So “open” risks becoming a distraction; a wish that we might avoid the incarceration that capital enforces on our labour-power, through the discipline of technological surveillance, order, productivity, efficiency, debt.


Thus the institutionalisation of open education risks becoming yet another alienating practice precisely because, as Winn argues, “it is just another way of creating capital out of immaterial labour”. A formalised, institutionalised, “open” education threatens us with: proletarianisation and deskilling through mass-production, automation and standardisation; the totem of efficiency and an increase in the rate of profit; the reification of the resource as product; and pedagogy-as-production, curricula-as-distribution and learning-as-consumption. In our apolitical discourse about the free movement and regeneration of reified things, we risk amplifying the commodification of “open” education through liberal property laws (Creative Commons) that guarantee a level of autonomy to digital objects over and above the rights of teaching (labour) and learning (apprenticeship) from which they are abstracted, and which is placed under the control and supervision of quality assurance, productivity and impact measures.


And yet we see the crisis all around us. Our environment is polluted. Our environment is despoiled. Our technologies are underpinned by corporate imperialism, war and human rights atrocities. Our technologies are a mechanism for profit and enclosure and the re-inscription of power. Our world-in-the-cloud is increasingly parcelled off into clearly demarcated, outsourced, privatised applications. And through our outsourced connection to the operation and production of technologies, and our consumption of them within a history of capitalist work, we are displaced from contributing towards worldly wisdom. We are increasingly separated, in part by by the disarming disguise of technology, from the reality of our being. This is our ongoing crisis.


A critique of “open” stands against business-as-usual. It offers “open” as a public concern – a form of contribution that is against what the University is becoming. Its realisation offers safe spaces where associations can be developed. And that is closed to monitoring and ordering and control and profit. And that is against the social re-ordering of our lives for enclosure, the extraction of surplus value and of capitalist valorisation. And that is messy in its social re-formations, in its consumption and in its production, and in how individual contributions are assembled. For as Marx wrote:

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.

And so we might ask what the hacker ethic, and what Lulzsec and Anonymous, offers us? We might ask what open source development offers us? We might ask what a more nebulous, less ordered and monitored and modelled form of “open” offers us? What does openness at the margins, beyond the formally-enclosed institution offer us?


Dyer-Witheford offers us hope in the histories of the Commons:

A twenty-first century communism must also be envisioned as a complex unity of terrestrial, state and networked commons, but the strategic and enabling point in this ensemble is the networked commons, which opens possibilities for new combinations of planetary planning and autonomous association.

These histories offer a critique of the ahistorical truisms of our being, that technology and education can only meaningfully serve capitalist expansion, through discourses of order and finance capital that are related to value-for-money, efficiency/productivity/profit, private/public, and the market. The global contribution of skills, alongside stories in which they might be situated, exists in spaces that remain as yet unenclosed. These spaces might be harnessed collaboratively for more than profiteering, or the extraction of surplus value or further accumulation or financialisation, or alienation or violence.

In and beyond technology we teach and re-think these practices and these ways of thinking every day with other staff and students and within our communities of practice. But they need to be politicised in the face of the crisis, because they flow through our being and our power-to create the world. As Marx highlighted

Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them.


We need the confidence to imagine that our skills might be shared and put to another use. We need the confidence to defend our physical and virtual commons as spaces for contribution, through production and consumption. We need the confidence to think ethically through our positions. We need the confidence to live and tell a different, overtly political story of “open”.

This might mean less of a focus on “open” and more on “autonomy” against capital. For Tiqqun has argued that

“Autonomy” means that we make the worlds that we are grow. The Empire, armed with cybernetics, insists on autonomy for it alone, as the unitary system of the totality: it is thus forced to annihilate all autonomy whenever it is heterogeneous. We say that autonomy is for everyone and that the fight for autonomy has to be amplified. The present form taken on by the civil war is above all a fight against the monopoly on autonomy. That experimentation will become the “fecund chaos,” communism, the end of the cybernetic hypothesis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *