a note on the subsumption of academic labour

I

I am becoming more interested in the transition or transformation of academic labour inside an increasingly neoliberal university, and the ways in which technology is used to quicken that transition and discipline that labour. In this I am reminded of the transitions outlined by Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts from the formal to the real subsumption of labour under capital. I am not arguing here that we are finally seeing the real subsumption of academic labour under capital, or that it hasn’t yet occurred. However, I am interested in how policy and practice, and in particular the politics and political realities of higher education are now disciplining academic labour, in order to amplify that subsumption and remove opposition to the rule of money. The realities of the quickened pace of the real subsumption of academic labour inside the university as business and higher education as corporate sector bear analysis.

II

In the formal subsumption of labour under capital, as noted in this libcom discussion:

  • the worker confronts the capitalist, who possesses money, as the proprietor of his own person and therefore of his own labour capacity, and as the seller of the temporary use of the latter;
  • both meet as commodity owners, as seller and buyer, and thus as formally free persons, between whom in fact no other relation exists than that of buyer and seller, no other politically or socially fixed relation of domination and subordination;
  • the objective conditions of his labour (raw material, instruments of labour and therefore also means of subsistence during labour) belong, completely or at least in part, not to him but to the buyer and consumer of his labour, therefore themselves confront him as capital;
  • the more completely these conditions of labour confront him as the property of another, the more completely is the relation of capital and wage labour present formally, hence the more complete the formal subsumption of labour under capital;
  • as yet there is no difference in the mode of production itself. The labour process continues exactly as it did before — from the technological point of view — only as a labour process now subordinated to capital;
  • there develops within the production process itself a relation of domination and subordination, in that the consumption of labour capacity is done by the capitalist, and is therefore supervised and directed by him;
  • there develops within the production process itself a greater continuity of labour.

With the real subsumption of labour under capital, as noted in the same libcom discussion:

  • changes take place in the technological process, the labour process, and at the same time there are changes in the relation of the worker to his own production and to capital;
  • ·         the development of the productive power of labour takes place, in that the productive forces of social labour are developed, and only at that point does the application of natural forces on a large scale, of science and of machinery, to direct production become possible;
  • therefore, there is change not only in the formal relation but in the labour process itself. On the one hand the capitalist mode of production — which now first appears as a mode of production sui generis [in its own right] — creates a change in the shape of material production;
  • this change in the material shape forms the basis for the development of the capital-relation, whose adequate shape therefore only corresponds to a particular level of development of the material forces of production;
  • the worker’s relation of dependence in production itself is thereby given a new shape. This is the first point to be emphasised. This heightening of the productivity of labour and the scale of production is in part a result of, and in part a basis for, the development of the capital-relation;
  • capitalist production now entirely strips off the form of production for subsistence, and becomes production for trade, in that neither the individual’s own consumption nor the immediate needs of a given circle of customers remain a barrier to production; now the only barrier is the magnitude of the capital itself;
  • on the other hand, where the whole of the product becomes a commodity (even where, as in agriculture, it partially re-enters production in natural form), all its elements leave the circulation and enter into the act of production as commodities;
  • for production to occur in a capitalist way, an ever-growing minimum of exchange value, of money — i.e. of constant capital and variable capital — is required to ensure that the labour necessary to obtain the product is the labour socially necessary, i.e. that the labour required for the production of a single commodity = the minimum amount of labour necessary under average conditions;
  • for objectified labour — money — to function as capital, it must be present in the hands of the individual capitalist in a certain minimum quantity;
  • the capitalist must be the owner or proprietor of means of production on a social scale;
  • it is precisely the productivity, and therefore the quantity of production, the numbers of the population and of the surplus population, created by this mode of production, that constantly calls forth new branches of industry, operating with the capital and labour that have been set free;
  • in these branches capital can once again work on a small scale and again pass through the various phases of development required until with the development of capitalist production labour is carried on a social scale in these new branches of industry as well.

With the real subsumption of labour under capital a complete revolution takes place in the mode of production itself, in the productivity of labour, and in the relation — within production — between the capitalist and the worker, as also in the social relation between them.

III

So we might think about the recalibration of academic labour inside the University against the following precepts of real subsumption, with some examples that need fleshing out.

  • changes in the technological process, the labour process, and changes in the relation of the worker to his own production and to capital:
    • digital labour: “Digital technology is facilitating on-going efforts by employers to replace full-time, tenured positions with part-time, precarious employment”;
    • proletarianisation and internships: “Unpaid research posts represent the latest step in the ‘proletarianisation’ of the academy”;
    • proletarianisation of post-graduate practice: “HE institutions, faced with a funding crisis, are attacking the conditions established academics and PG employees alike”.
  • the productive forces of social labour are developed:
    • big data: “The data show us that there are some specific teaching practices which appear to promote higher levels of student achievement”;
    • learning analytics: “A [] needed transition is one that moves LA research and implementation from at-risk identification to an emphasis on learner success and optimization… Theoretically, LA has potential to dramatically impact the existing models of education and to generate new insights into what works and what does not work in teaching and learning. The results are potentially transformative to all levels of today’s education system”;
    • personalisation and work-based learning: “mainstream approaches to work-based learning are constructed under the human capital ideology without taking the lived experience of working people and race, class, gender relations into account”.
  • a change in the shape of material production:
    • course closures: “the university could now concentrate on offering the best possible experience to its main markets”;
    • the lean university: “The Lean University project will play a vital role in the University’s strategic development and shaping the way we work”.
  • production for trade
    • the international trade of higher education;
    • neoliberal education restructuring: “Education markets are one facet of the neoliberal strategy to manage the structural crisis of capitalism by opening the public sector to capital accumulation. The roughly $2.5 trillion global market in education is a rich new arena for capital investment.”
  • This heightening of the productivity of labour and the scale of production
    • Pearson College;
    • privatization: “In what follows, I outline four strands of privatization as a formative alternative taxonomy: changing corporate form; marketization or ‘external privatization’; outsourcing; and joint ventures, or collaboration, with private capital.”.
  • the whole of the product becomes a commodity
    • student as consumer: “the Government’s proposals will improve their experience as students, expand their choices and make universities more accountable to students than ever before”;
    • the discipline of debt: “student debt, in its prevalence and amounts, constitutes a pedagogy, unlike the humanistic lesson that the university traditionally proclaims, of privatization and the market”;
    • agendas of choice: “Increased tuition fees mean students will be more selective in their choice of studies in Clearing 2012 due to concern over debt”.
  • an ever-growing minimum of exchange value, of money — i.e. of constant capital and variable capital — is required to ensure that the labour necessary to obtain the product is the labour socially necessary:
    • bond finance: “Universities currently borrow about £5bn, largely through bank finance. But they probably have the capacity to generate close to an additional £4bn to £4.5bn… Time and time again we hear back from investors that they would desperately love to get their hands on anything to do with the university sector and it is surprising that no one has gone to that market yet”;
    • Strategies for effective higher education fundraising.
  • the capitalist must be the owner or proprietor of means of production on a social scale.

IV

This latter point brings me to the politics of higher education and the ways in which political society advocates in the name of the real subsumption of academic labour to the dominant order. The political realities of Vice-Chancellors as CEOs of businesses for whom the reality is the tendency of the rate of profit to fall cannot be ignored. This places them in the context of networks of neoliberal, transnational advocacy networks. This political reality disciplines the actions that academic managers and administrators can take, either supported by the State or quiescent in the face of its power, and places them in opposition to those academics and students whose labour they need to recalibrate for the market.

As a result we see a range of political actions aimed at disciplining academics and students, including, but not limited to:

Similarly, this has given birth to a range of solidarity actions, communiqués, and free universities, that are not simply a recasting of higher education in liberal terms around the notion of economic libertarianism or cost-free learning (as pervades the MOOC debate). These are deeply political claims for higher learning, and a critique and reclaiming of the university against-and-beyond capitalism.

However, the accrual of executive power within universities acting as corporations and the use of technology as a mechanism for surveillance and performance management, means that the explicit subsumption of academic labour under the realities of competition, productivity, efficiency and profit is inevitable. In this process the realities of force and political will by those with power-to create a dominant order trump individual protests. Force married to political will then invades the cultural realities of civil society, so that no matter how we argue for education as a public good, it is subsumed under the rule of money.

In this process of ensuring that the capitalist is the owner or proprietor of means of production on a social scale, the politics are the thing. How might a counter-narrative be generated that connects academic labour to student protests and the broader work of protests against austerity? What is the role of academic trades unions in coalescing and amplifying protest so that pushing-back against recalibration becomes possible? Or in the face of the logic of discipline and coercion, and a political will amongst networks of legislators and academic managers for recalibration, is the scope for the university to be regenerated as a space of resistance and protest too limited? In fact, is some form of exodus the only option?


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