On the entrepreneurial university and the social factory

In the Economic and Social Manuscripts Marx described how by developing the body of the factory, or machinery organised into a system with labour subsumed under that system, capitalists worked:

  • to annex labour-power inside machinery that freed them from the organised power of workers to remove their labour;
  • to annex the labour of those whose labour-power was less costly and so enabled further extraction of surplus value, in this case of women and children, thus augmenting “the number of human beings who form the material for capitalistic exploitation”;
  • to confiscate further the worker’s disposable time, by extending the hours of labour;
  • to increase productivity, as a means of systematically getting more work done in a shorter time, or of exploiting labour-power more intensely;
  • to deskill the worker to embed that technical content inside the form of the machine, so that the capitalist might be emancipated from the restraints that are inseparable from human labour-power.

Marx writes that

The lightening of the labour, even, becomes a sort of torture, since the machine does not free the labourer from work, but deprives the work of all interest. Every kind of capitalist production, in so far as it is not only a labour-process, but also a process of creating surplus-value, has this in common, that it is not the workman that employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of labour that employ the workman. But it is only in the factory system that this inversion for the first time acquires technical and palpable reality. By means of its conversion into an automaton, the instrument of labour confronts the labourer, during the labour-process, in the shape of capital, of dead labour, that dominates, and pumps dry, living labour-power. The separation of the intellectual powers of production from the manual labour, and the conversion of those powers into the might of capital over labour, is, as we have already shown, finally completed by modern industry erected on the foundation of machinery. The special skill of each individual insignificant factory operative vanishes as an infinitesimal quantity before the science, the gigantic physical forces, and the mass of labour that are embodied in the factory mechanism and, together with that mechanism, constitute the power of the “master.”

One hope for emancipation from this living death is that because capital depends on the exploitation of labour-power, in order to extract surplus value and maintain increase in the rate of profit, it needs different ways to relate to labour. In early industrialisation the factory enabled efficiencies in production and highlighted the mechanisms through which the social content of labour might be developed. The factories therefore offered ways in which the combination of labour might enable an amelioration of working conditions through trades unionism and collective bargaining. It was the ways in which labour might understand its power, and its power revealed socially as mass intellectuality, that could offer a way out. Developing and hoarding individuated skills was only a means to diminish our individual selves, and merely reinforced our dehumanisation, ostensibly through our alienation from others and ourselves.

In more recent work by autonomist Marxists, this analysis of the factory and the social content of work has been extended to develop the idea of the social factory, in which our individuated selves, or ourselves located inside family units, provide the very privatised matter upon which consumption and production can be extended. Thus, inside the idea of the social factory the whole of our lived experience is a space that can be contracted for, privatised and commodified, in order that surplus value can be legitimately extracted from it. As well as in our working existence, in our leisure we become alienated from ourselves, and unable to become fully human. What it is to be human is commodified inside a system where we have very limited power to be anything at all. Our every action, “like”, friendship, relationship simply offers a space for new services and products to develop. Moreover, the normalisation of working in/at/from home, and the bleeding of boundaries between work and home, including the technologies used in those spaces, thus enables capital to normalise the power of capitalist work over life.

The idea of the social factory enables a critique of gender relationships and the family in enabling labour-power to be reproduced for capital. This forms an extension of the mechanisms through which a surplus can be extracted because the family is developed as a space inside which production/consumption for profit can be nurtured, but also because the family, rather than “work”, nourishes the worker so that s/he is fit to return to work each day. Moreover, the social factory is a space inside which the general intellect and the application of science to production and consumption can be rolled out beyond the limits of formally contracted work, in a less collectivised space. Moreover, our leisure time is converted into cognitive work as our (inter)actions are mined in order that they provide opportunities to create new services or products. In this our engagements with a range of technologies fold our personal lives into the world of work, as we work to bring our own devices into the workplace, thus opening-up and merging our personal data, relationships and practices to the desires and will of the workplace. As a result of our atomised and often contractual relationships, the threat of non-compliance, strikes or work-stoppages is reduced.

There is an increasing critique of the relationship between the social factory and cognitive capitalism, in particular in the individuation of everyday experiences and relationships that are increasingly seen as contracted or contractual. One of the key markers of Marx’s work on machinery and on labour-power, in its English, factory deployment was the focus on social content of meaningful work. This enabled the worker to be seen as a social being and to see one route for amelioration of the worst excesses of capitalism to be through combination. It also offered ways of seeing the social content of labour as a crisis for capital, although capital would use information generated across the social factory to depress wages and exert control.

It is inside this critique that we might now turn to the idea of the entrepreneurial university and, in particular, the relationship between entrepreneurialism in education and technology. This relationship is critical if we are to address how the individual and the social content of labour are being developed inside-and-against the institution, and if we are to point towards a possible set of educational alternatives. In a recent essay Ronald Barnett has argued that the discourse surrounding higher education and the idea of the University is limited and limiting. He has written that the idea of the entrepreneurial dynamics of the University rests on a shared vocabulary.

A vocabulary quickly emerges among politicians, state officials, university rectors and vice-chancellors of the “global economy”, “competition”, “success”, “customers”, “surplus income”, “multiple income streams” and “knowledge transfer”. The entrepreneurial university is, as we may term it, an endorsing philosophy. It notes that the university is caught up in the burgeoning knowledge economy and sets out a mission that further encourages movement that is already under way.

Barnett then argues that critiques of this position from a public-good or neoliberal/financialisation perspective lack positivity and form dystopian, unhopeful spaces. He argues that “The whole debate is hopelessly impoverished” and lacks imagination, ignoring both the mechanisms through which imagination, innovation or creativity are opened-up as immaterial labour or cognitive capital for profit, and the deeper structural limitations of any alternative based on hopeful imagination inside capitalism. Imagination or creativity risk becoming liberal sops that connect to a discourse of economic growth, and inside the reality of austerity politics their very foundation needs a political economic critique.

So Barnett argues that we need to overcome “a fear of imagining” where “universities have convinced themselves that they are boxed in, unable to think or act in ways that are going to contribute to the world’s well-being.” He believes that “we should not be too pessimistic: some universities across the world are becoming systematically imaginative and encouraging of imaginative ideas.” Only he cannot give any examples of his “feasible utopias”. Does he mean the imagination shown in the global occupations? In the raft of alternatives to the enclosure of the university by austerity politics and the rule of money, in California, or in the edufactory collective, or the knowledge liberation front, or in protests in Dhaka, Addis Ababa, London etc.? What does this mean for the relationships between students, academics and administrators? What about the relationships between universities and the State, where consent and coercion are being redefined?

One way to begin to look at this problem of the idea of the university, is in the deployment of technology inside universities, which has emerged alongside an almost total lack of meaningful, mainstream critique of technologies and techniques, in particular inside educational technology communities. In this is witnessed the mis-engagement with the idea of social learning and socialised critique. The vogue for bring your own device, for personal learning networks as personalised brands, for promoting technologies and creativity, and now for entrepreneurialism, are presented as strands inside an emancipatory discourse. In particular, these vogues are connected to: technological innovation and the desperate need for the next innovative idea; individuated views of how the educational system might be made to work better, so that those whom it has failed might be redeemed; work-based efficiencies being spread into our everyday lifeworlds, in order that we might become better producers/consumers; narratives of economic growth and recovery. In the politics of austerity against which technological innovation is asymmetrically placed, there is an increasing stress on the role of the individual to reduce their social needs and to increase their contractual, commodity-based portfolio. In this new set of narratives the deployment of innovative technologies, increasingly linked to ideas of entrepreneurialism, as seen to be unquestioningly central.

Thus, we see the drive for technology-driven entrepreneurialism inside the university, increasingly connected to the narrative of economic growth. However, the assumptions that underpin this relationship then demand a further set of questions, in particular inside higher education which is increasingly being seen as a motive force for catalysing an entrepreneurial, business-focused life-world.

  • Does an entrepreneurial university experience reinforce the transfer of risk for failure and indebtedness from society as a whole to the individual, underpinned by a new fee structure? Does it reinforce the individuated inequities of human/social capital? Does it reinforce the demonization of those deemed not entrepreneurial in their practices or techniques?
  • Does an entrepreneurial university experience further remove individuals from the social content of their labour? Does such an experience reinforce the contractual, atomised nature of our relationships that are increasingly based on private property?
  • Does a focus on individuated entrepreneurialism reinforce precarious forms of labour? Does its recreation inside higher education reinforce the politics of austerity?
  • Does a focus on educational entrepreneurialism enable society as a whole to address the crises of austerity, climate change and liquid fuel availability?
  • Do technologies, and ideas like bring your own device, personal learning networks, MOOCs and learning analytics, bear systemic analysis, so that educators can understand whether they individuate further our experiences, reduce them to contractual, privatised worlds, and further remove their social content, or not?

In this process we might remember that for all our focus on technologies like ipads or raspberry pi as emancipatory/entrepreneurial in their ability to enable digital literacies or creativity (whatever that is) to flourish, they are still manufactured from components and minerals that are themselves produced in environments that immiserate others. We might ask, to what extent is our entrepreneurialism afforded at the personal expense of other human beings?

In asking these politicised questions I am interested in remembering the social forms of our labour, identified inside the factory and reinvented in the social factory, and the social content that is held therein. It is in the process of socialising our labour, and in catalysing and releasing that labour as mass intellectuality that we might begin to offer alternatives that move us away from business-as-usual and the poverty of the politics of austerity. It is in the revelation of the mechanisms through which universities contribute to the idea of contractual, privatised entrepreneurialism and become key agents in structuring the dynamics of the social factory that might enable alternative forms of sociability to be developed, against-and-beyond the university. These need to be more than simply in the name of business-as-usual or the vagaries of imagination or hope. It is against this view, situated very specifically inside the current global crisis of capitalism, that the purpose and reality of technology-fuelled, entrepreneurial education needs to be addressed.


One Response to On the entrepreneurial university and the social factory

  1. Pingback: Educational technology, academic labour and a pedagogy for class struggle | Richard Hall's Space

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