The University and the globalised learning landscape

In a post on Globalisation and the University, I picked up on William Robinson’s work on the mechanisms by which a transnational capitalist class, acting through a transnational state apparatus, and supported by a neoliberal political society, hatched from within national capitals. I made the point that it is impossible to understand the role of the University without developing a critique of its relationships to that transnational capitalist class, both in the ways that it is being restructured by political society and national state apparatuses across the global North, and crucially as an integral element in developing the hegemony of that transnational capitalist class throughout civil society. Effectively the University is shaped by the national policies that are catalysed for transnational capital, like privatisation, tax-exemption and indentured study. However, it also helps both to broaden the flexible, transnational capital accumulation from territories in the global South, and to deepen the mechanics of accumulation from previously socialised goods in the global North like healthcare and public education. These spaces are in-turn enclosed, folded into the circuits of globalised production, and then commodified for private consumption and gain.

A separate point that Robinson makes in his Theory of Global Capitalism surrounds the idea that technology, entrepreneuialism and innovation, despite their centrality to the processes of globalising production and consumption and to catalysing the flows of capital accumulation, are merely dependent variables in any social change. Capitalists and governments innovate and apply technologies and techniques because of the internal dynamics of the system of capitalism. These dynamics include competition, making the organic composition of capital as efficient as possible through squeezing labour, maintaining the increase in the rate of profit, and class struggle. Technologies are used inside capitalism to lower costs, to drive productivity, to discipline labour and to gain competitive advantage over other capitals/businesses/universities. Technological change is the result of social forces in struggle and the need to overcome the temporal and spatial barriers to accumulation.

In the transnational phase of capitalism then, technologies are used: to drive down labour rights across the globe; to polarise wealth and access to global income, as well as global, social mobility; to destroy the circulation time of commodities on a global scale; to escape the national (taxation) barriers to accumulation; to replace and rationalise human labour by labour-saving machines; to support the power of globally-mobile finance capital over labour; to coerce militarily those areas of the globe that act as a barrier to accumulation, for instance through the coercive use of drone technology; and to maintain the hegemonic power of a global elite, including the secular control of that elite over the consumption of media, politics, and social life in the global North. This secular control is based on the tenets of liberal democracy that are increasingly limited by the power of transnational capitalism over the objective material reality of life, and which is reinforced technologically and pedagogically. To argue for emancipation through technological innovation, least of all inside the University, is to fetishise technology and to misunderstand how technology is shaped by the clash of social forces and the desire of capital to escape the barriers imposed by labour.

Technological innovation goes hand-in-hand with strategies for capital accumulation and the explosion in proletarian work, unemployment and underemployment across the globe. Much of this immiseration remains hidden from those in the global North who perceive that capitalism and the market offers the only workable solution. This ignores the fact that, as an article on the Network of Global Corporate Control demonstrates, the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations

[identifies] a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy… a core of 1318 companies [representing] 20 per cent of global operating revenues and… the majority of the world’s large blue chip and manufacturing firms… representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues’… a “super-entity” of 147 even more tightly knit companies … controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth … Most were financial institutions.

In the face of these objective realities I wonder what we are to make of engagements like the Changing the Learning Landscape programme inside UK Higher Education, which aims at strategic change in the use of technology in order: to change students’ prospects and life chances; to promote systemic and institutional change; and to support collaboration and partnership-working. In particular, I am interested in the extent to which the agency of students, staff or institutions is constricted through the restructuring of the University as a competing business, and the use of technology inside that business for accumulation as opposed to emancipation. In the restructuring of the University inside globalised capitalism any such agency risks being reduced to a competition over the least precarious forms of employment. This is the living death that is capitalist work refocused upon the objective realities of labour arbitrage.

This then makes any analysis of the ways in which students and staff engage with technology much less about their subjective reality as visitors or residents, and much more about their objective, material reality as a producer or a consumer inside globalised, transnational production processes. Inside a view of the student/teacher as visitor/resident there is limited scope for dissent, pushing back or resistance to the proletarianisation of work. There is only acceptance of capital’s domination over the lifeworld of labour and a reduction of discourse to specific technologies or to the ability of individuals to maintain a boundary between work and personal life, a battle which autonomous Marxism’s critique of immaterial labour, cognitive capital and the social factory tells us that capital will win unless we find cracks to exploit or mechanisms for exodus from the processes of accumulation and proletarianisation.

Therefore, any focus on institutional change needs to critique the relationships that emerge between student and teacher as producer and consumer, inside the globalised, material realities of transnational capitalism. They form representatives of global labour as it is being restructured inside globalised production processes, and the University is a site of that restructuring in the name of transnational capital accumulation. In this way, I wonder whether critiques of the possibilities of digital literacy, with a focus on the identities of student/teacher as producer/consumer, might offer a better way of revealing the globalised relationships of student, teacher and University. It is an understanding of the globalised production/consumption axis that offers a more meaningful critique of the fetishised idea of the digital student than the model of visitor/resident which in fact risks further fetishising of students or student life or digital technologies, and cannot break from the logic of capitalist exploitation. Without a deeper political context, rooted in production/consumption and the dynamics of capitalism, visitor/resident can only ever serve the reproduction of exploitative and polarised social relationships.

I wonder then whether a focus on critique of the productive and consumption-led capabilities and attributes of digital literacy, which are themselves openly/transparently grounded in craft skills that are understood as situated inside capitalist re-production processes, might be a more useful crack for pushing back against capital. A digital literacy that reflects on practices that are situated in complex, virtual/physical space-time, might then enable an enriched understanding of the individual’s asymmetrical relationship to transnational capital. This relationship includes the objective reality of indentured study, the coercive nature of technologies in monitoring performance, the restructuring of study in the name of economy, and the looming global energy/climate crisis.

Each of these objective realities demands that we reconfigure our thinking about the relationships between student, teacher and University, in terms of production/consumption and the material reality of capitalism. It is here that the power of global capital over global labour might be resisted through a focus on ideas like student-as-producer, using globalised platforms like wikimedia or ds106, not as fetishised commodities, but as sites for solidarity actions that reinforce the ability of counter-hegemonic forces to work together against the processes of accumulation. It is inside-and-against ideas like student-as-producer that we might resist the real subsumption of learning and teaching agendas, and pedagogic innovation programmes, for the hegemonic power of elites.

One of the key issues then is the extent to which programmes like Changing the Learning Landscape can be used as a space to resist the co-option of pedagogy for neoliberal agendas related to employability, enterprise and recalibrating the macroeconomic context for growth. How can such programmes resist the fetishisation of both technologies and students? How can they push-back against the competitive dynamic for constant change and innovation, to focus on the ways in which the production processes inside the University can be revealed and co-opted for a different, socialised form of wealth? How might they enable a contributional, productive economy, which is deliberative, participatory and inclusive? How might they enable students/teachers to open-up the University as a site of political power and civil society to transparent critique?

In fact, how might ideas like digital literacy and student-as-producer, technologies/platforms like wikimedia, and sites of struggle like the University, be opened-up pragmatically through programmes of work like Changing the Learning Landscape, to enable critique of the idea that the student/teacher as scholar might become an organic intellectual? How might they truly connect the University to the idea of the public good through a globalised learning landscape that is not enclosed but which is developed as a Commons through solidarity actions? In Robinson’s terms, how might an organisational critique based on ideas like student-as-producer be connected to a dissatisfaction in civil society with the objective, material reality of transnational capitalism? Grass-roots social movements, environmental crisis, global student occupations, global protests against austerity and the power of finance capital all make it increasingly difficult for ruling elites to maintain hegemony. Hence, in-part, the enforcement of indentured study and the reality of pedagogic cultures based on enterprise.

The challenge is to take these social struggles that exist inside-and-against the University and infuse them politically, using globalised technologies, in order to open-up a counter-hegemonic space or global commons. It is only through the politicising of academic (student/teacher) labour through solidarity actions that truly transformational change that addresses social need and marginalisation beyond the market can be realised. Universities are critical sites in the globalisation of this struggle, as is the student/teacher as producer/consumer of material relations that are beyond the subjective. It is through the technological mobilisation of these social forces that the legitimacy of the transnational capitalist class might be challenged, in order that global production might be redirected sustainably for the majority of the world’s population that are neither visitor nor resident, but whom are impoverished and pauperised, as opposed to being for the minority of high-income, high-status groups in the global North. This means developing models that replace the restructuring and reorganisation of global society for capital accumulation, including the realisation of pedagogic models and ideas of public education that maintain (counter-)hegemony.

7 Responses to The University and the globalised learning landscape

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