for the social content of academic labour

I: on social domination

In his Critical Social Theory and the Contemporary World, Moishe Postone argues that:

history, grasped as the unfolding of an immanent necessity, should be understood as delineating a form of unfreedom. That form of unfreedom is the object of Marx’s critical theory of capitalism, which is centrally concerned with the imperatives and constraints that underlie the historical dynamics and structural changes of the modern world. That is, rather than deny the existence of such unfreedom by focusing on contingency, the Marxian critique seeks to uncover its basis and the possibility of its overcoming.’

Postone reminds us that our everyday reality is shaped by labour-power. This shapes the commodities and capital relations that emerge as the concrete products of labour and the objectified forms of social mediation. At the heart of capitalism lies a structure of social mediation that is alienated from us as consumers and producers of the world because our everyday world is shaped by the objective, material reality of capitalist accumulation. The subsumption of labour for the accumulation of wealth means that inside capitalism there is no possibility that the individual, however, entrepreneurial, can be realised as a being for herself. Emancipation inside capitalism is impossible for the person whose very existence depends upon her ability to sell her labour-power as a commodity in the marketplace. The processes and techniques that structure life inside-and-against capitalist work only serve as forms of social domination. Thus, Postone argues:

Although there is a growing shift away from manual labor, the development of technologically sophisticated production does not liberate most people from fragmented and repetitive labor. Similarly, labor time is not reduced on a socially general level, but is distributed unequally, even increasing for many. The actual structure of labor and organization of production, then, cannot be understood adequately in technological terms alone; the development of production in capitalism must be understood in social terms as well.

For Marx, there is a need to understand how the historical subject is alienated from the products of her labour and the labour process itself, and as a result how she is alienated from herself and her species being. This final form of alienation is that of the individual from other individuals, in-part through the instantiation of competition inside the individual-as-entrepreneur and in-part through the denial of the social content of labour. Thus, Marx argued that the recovery of the general intellect or of socially-useful knowledge, science and technology, revealed at the level of society, was critical where it was developed through association with others. The key is co-operative practice that can refuse the material alienation of capitalist work, and that might enable alternatives to be imagined.

II: on labour arbitrage and the assault on academic labour

The realities of globalisation and of labour arbitrage place an increasing pressure on our ability to face-down hegemonic narratives of entrepreneurialism and the self-made nature of success inside education. In a recent post on Globalisation and the University, I argued that academics need to understand the following.

  1. The global processes oflabour arbitrage, whereby technology is used to deskill and discipline global labour, including inside the academy. This stands against the ideal of many educators for the democratic agendas of digital literacy or learner’s rights.
  2. How transnational capital uses the global processes of competition and free trade agreements to discipline transnational labour, through the use of cloud technologies and outsourced services, through workplace monitoring, and increasingly friable labour conditions.
  3. How globalised, neoliberal cultural norms emerge from the objective conditions of capitalist work, and the everyday reality of those objective conditions for those who work in the global South and whose work in the global North is proletarianised. This includes the ways in which universities reinforce those objective conditions and act as institutions of the state in underpinning the agency of transnational finance capital, like investment banks, management consultancies, technology firms, private equity etc..

The critical space around which the continuing assault on academic labour is being developed has been further restructured by two recent developments: first, proposed legislation in California that connects budget cuts and outsourcing; and second, the publication of an IPPR paper on higher education. These two developments form part of the policy/practice backdrop to an interconnected, neoliberal restructuring of higher education for the market. They connect think-tanks and the vendors of educational technology, to the technology-led outriders of educational reform in the sole name of economic growth and value, and to the politics of austerity. In this, the place of academics and their labour is subsumed under the ideas of the student-as-consumer, the need to catalyse an entrepreneurial society in which economic risk is transferred from society to the individual, and the material realities of globalised labour arbitrage.

Thus, Inside Higher Ed reports that “California lawmakers detailed a plan Wednesday to require the state’s 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for low-cost online courses offered by outside groups, including classes offered by for-profit companies.” Moreover, the Bill “would force all the state’s colleges – from community colleges to the University of California at Berkeley – to reduce overcrowding by allowing students to enroll in dozens of outsourced classes.” The Bill’s sponsor, Democratic State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, “said the bill would reshape higher education”. Budget cuts have reduced “California’s budget-weary public higher education [system’s ability] to meet student demand”, with reports of 500,000 students being turned away.

Zerohedge among others have reported on the realities of the student debt bubble, and I have written elsewhere about the interconnections between education, technology and student debt, and “the structural need for capital to seek out rents or profits from new educational spaces, based on either the reduction in the circulation time of commodities or the creation of new services, applications or information flows.” Inside economies that are addicted to debt, and which are based on a promise of repayments through deregulated, globalised, entrepreneurial zeal, the use of technology to crack open education and restructure academic labour practices is critical. Thus, Inside Higher Ed reports the concerns of The California Faculty Association, the union that represents professors in the California State University system:

We are seeing a whirlwind of new technologies – as well as proposals on how to best deploy them – coming to the fore and as such, it is imperative that we clearly understand what is, and what is not, working. We want to maintain academic credibility and the delivery of accessible, quality public education, rather than chase the latest private sector fad.

Inside Higher Ed notes that “The proposal could meet opposition from faculty worn down by years of budget battles.” Bob Samuels writes about this very point in more detail and focuses on the mechanisms through which this type of political restructuring underpins the outsourcing of academic practices.

Senator Steinberg is pushing a bill that will potentially outsource many of the University of California lower-division courses to outside course provides like Udacity and Coursera. Here we see one of the clearest examples of privatizing a public good. The state cuts the UC budget for years, and then the same people who cut the budget say we should now turn to online education to deal with the mess. Of course they add that faculty will have a say, but the question is which faculty, and can they stop a plan that is supported by the university president, the governor, and now the legislature?

In this view, the social content of academic labour formed inside the University as a space for association is alienated, objectified and subsumed inside the material realities of marketization and private-sector accumulation. The links between austerity-driven education policies, student debt as an engine for business-as-usual, the use of technology to discipline academic labour, and the threats of outsourcing, are used to restructure the relationships between academics and society.

This hegemonic narrative is reinforced by think-tanks through reports that connect higher education to the market and entrepreneur, and a life that can only be described in terms of work-readiness or personal failure. This is clear in the Institute for Public Policy Research’s paper, An Avalanche is Coming. The paper allegedly “challenges every player in the system to act boldly”, although the key player who voice is marginalised is the academic, and this is understandable given the paper’s focus on restructuring academic labour in the face of the material realities of economic growth:

Citizens need to seize the opportunity to learn and re-learn throughout their lives. They need to be ready to take personal responsibility both for themselves and the world around them. Every citizen is a potential student and a potential creator of employment (p. 5).

This is a world described entrepreneurially for work, and for a recalibration of education and its structures for individuated success or failure. The social nature of learning, and the associational opportunities that education affords, are negated because the focus for technology-fuelled universities has to be:

creating value for their students (p. 5)

and this form of value can only be realised inside capitalism for the accumulation of wealth. As a result of this need to create and extract value on an individual level:

The traditional university is being unbundled (p. 5).

Thus, the report focuses upon the role of the twenty-first century University and new, private providers in:

ensuring education for employability?

breaking the link between cost and quality: “In the era of modern technology, when students can individually and collectively create knowledge themselves, outstanding quality without high fixed costs is both plausible and desirable.”

restructuring the entire learning ecosystem to support alternative providers and the future of work. “A new breed of learning providers is emerging that emphasise learning by practice and mentorship. Systematic changes are necessary to embedding these successful companies on a wider scale.” (p. 6)

This focus on outsourcing academic practice and knowledge, private-sector commodification of academic knowledge, and in reducing the costs of academic practice, mean an on-going assault on academic labour. Thus, the IPPR paper asserts that academic autonomy threatens a reduced student experience and creates systemic risk through the tensions innate in academic labour-relations, because:

faculty lead and undertake the research and (sometimes) the teaching, the two activities which drive the key outputs. The relationship between faculty and the organisation itself is fundamentally tense, in a way that is not true of other organisations of intellectual merit. Consultancies, for example, create incentives in which individual consultants are driven by organisational goals. Universities cannot (and should not) do the same. (p. 27)

Moreover, in a world where the teaching of academic stars is globally available:

These scholars are a far cry from the run-of-the-mill faculty making their (often good) living from a combination of teaching, research and consultancy. While the stars may attract the students, these are the people who actually teach them. (p. 27)

Thus, in the paper the hegemony of technology in reshaping academic labour is critical, and this enables think-tanks and consultancies to work with emerging neoliberal public policy like that being invoked in California to “delineat[e] a form of unfreedom” inside-and-against the University. This is laid out through “The ubiquity of information and the near-zero cost of storing and transmitting it means that universities no longer own the monopoly over the expression of ideas in courses. EdX has made many of the courses taught by Harvard and MIT academics available for anyone in the world to use” (p. 38). Critically then, this is about a process of restructuring higher education for the market, and an assault on academic labour through the global processes of arbitrage. Here technological innovation “potentially provide a much more efficient market for teaching and learning than the university ecosystem – and for many people this might be the best way to improve their lives through learning”, and this means that “For traditional universities, a dramatic rethink of how faculty use their time and how they interact with students will be central to future success” (pp. 44-5).

Thus, the costs of a university education, and more especially the costs of academic labour in a globalised market, are underpinned by a narrative that situates education inside-and-for individuated capitalist work, and which reinforces the process of alienation. As a result:

Learning and work are becoming inseparable – indeed one could argue that this is precisely what it means to have a knowledge economy or a learning society. It follows that if work is becoming learning, then learning needs to become work – and universities need to become alive to the possibilities… Since technology can aggregate large amounts of data and communicate it decisively, methods other than the award of the university degree could mark a person as prepared for employment. (p. 52)

III: redeeming academic labour

Thus, academic labour is under assault both inside-and-beyond the University through a focus on capitalist work, rather than socialised living or socialised knowledge or socialised goods. The driver for this is the production/consumption processes of economic growth and the real subsumption of the University inside the material realities of the market. Universities must conform to the neoliberal ideal of the entrepreneur who succeeds in the market or they must be disciplined by external providers like MOOCs:

Economic value creators – in the shape of entrepreneurs – are defined by their ability to effectively turn raw resources into a bigger whole. They are increasingly likely to employ fewer full-time employees and instead outsource key deliverables to those that demonstrate the highest competency in a particular task. This competency is measured by their track record in that task, not by their underlying credentials. People will need to learn constantly and increase their skills. (p. 55)

This is the new normal for higher education in the global North, and the terrain on which academics need to find solidarity and resistance, and then push-back. This terrain in one in which universities will increasingly be driven through competition to find ways to reduce costs, to outsource services and provision, to meet the needs of globalised finance capital including the edicts of bond markets, credit rating agencies and private equity, and to reinscribe their students as present and future customers. At issue is the role of academic and professional service staff unions in critiquing this material reality and in finding alternatives that “seek[] to uncover its basis and the possibility of its overcoming.” Reclaiming labour-power inside the University is one such starting point and it is based on solidarity actions across the global North and the global South. In a space that is being restructured for value extraction against academic labour, spaces for association and solidarity are pivotal.

Over at Music for Deckchairs, Kate Bowles has argued:

At the heart of this two-tier system of elite university providers and mass university markets will be unbundled digital delivery of content, online platforms, locally supported tutoring and proctored testing. And Pearson are standing by with the clinical strength solutions to all the problems. So at the very least, this report is a strong case for higher ethical standards in research and analysis of educational markets by vendor stakeholders. Pearson have an extraordinary conflict of interest here, which is a very weak basis on which to try to gain our trust.

And it’s not a radical proposition: it’s a reheat of every argument being had everywhere about MOOCs, college tuition, university branding, ranking and funding, graduate employability, the emerging Asian markets (which is truly an awful way to think about individual students), young people and technology, the campus experience, the global superstars. The whole minestrone.

What’s missing is a vision for change that any of us would be proud to be part of.

Defining that vision demands that academics seek to reclaim the social content of their labour against the neoliberal processes of labour arbitrage. As Rikowski argues, we need to find and articulate alternatives:

the politics of human resistance is not only concerned with opposing the reduction of education and training to labour power but also holds out for modes of education and training aimed at meeting human needs and opening up realms of freedom. At this point, the politics of human resistance also needs to intersect with a more generalised anti-capitalist education otherwise it embraces only one dimension of the negativity required for progressive social change: i.e. resistance to the reduction of education and training to labour power production – without offering alternative forms of education and training.

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 which 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. They form sites of struggle that are against those spaces described in the IPPR paper or Steinberg’s Bill. They form spaces through which we might replace the restructuring and reorganisation of global society for capital accumulation. They form spaces for the realisation of pedagogic models and ideas of public education that maintain counter-hegemony. It is time for academic labour to find its voice or to lose those spaces to the market.

One Response to for the social content of academic labour

  1. Pingback: Open and closed: inside-and-against polyarchy | Richard Hall's Space

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