On memory, profitability, disruption and socialised alternatives

On memory: In scoping the policy space inside which Australian Higher Education is being restructured, Kate Bowles argues for recognising the complexity of higher education in all its forms, and for finding spaces to contest the neoliberal mantra of efficiency. She argues that:

[academics] now need to speak up in precise and evidence-based ways about the opportunity cost of applying the Efficiency Dividend to something as complex and socially diverse as Australian higher education.

This is an important point that asks us to recognise and articulate the complexity of our socialised memory. How might we describe the pedagogic projects that form and are formed by our lives? What is needed is a historical analysis of the socialised nature of higher education and the socialised nature of the kinds of learning and knowing that take place inside its forms, as they are defined spatially and temporally. This socialisation is deliberately set against the individuated, commodified, entrepreneurial and venture capital-driven responses that currently infect our discussion of possible, alternative forms of higher education. David Kernohan exemplifies this need for a historical analysis when he argues against the simplistic reduction of the discussion of (massive and open) on-line education to its co-option by elites in the present. He recognises the relationships between historical memory, socialised value, and institutions as social spaces for generating and sharing knowing or knowledge:

Work needs to be done. But I am unable to agree that the answer lies in trying to subvert what already exists, because there is already an entire industry that has been trying to do that for 20 years, and they have already succeeded in destroying a lot of what was great about the old system. When we see academic conditions fall again and again, when we see new PhDs earning less than they would tending bar, when we see learners treated like numbers, we know that it could be better because in living memory it has been better. Maybe it is our memories we need to share with you.

On profitability: In defining and sharing the value of remembering, the mechanisms through which MOOCs or whatever-disruptive-innovations have been subsumed under or erased by “the missions of the elite colleges and universities [that t]hey were designed to undermine” (as Stephen Downes has argued), is less important than recognising that they represent one mechanism through which capital is seeking to restore its systemic profitability. Their relationship to universities as competing, global capitals, and inside the systemic drive to release new masses of surplus value that can underpin new forms of accumulation from new markets needs to be understood.

To argue for or against “the deeply subversive intent and design of the original MOOCs” is a secondary issue facing higher education. The deeper set of questions revolves around the real subsumption of the forms of higher education by transnational finance capital, in order to restore profitability in the face of global, structural crisis. Michael Roberts notes that “investment depends on profit – and profit depends on the exploitation of labour power and its appropriation by capital”. Thus, the relationships between venture capitalists, universities and colleges, and on-line providers, need to be seen systemically in terms of capital’s overcoming of the barriers to profitability. This is especially the case inside the current historical crisis of capital where new barriers to accumulation have been reached. In order to set the processes for capital accumulation in-train once more, a new mass of surplus value needs to be released and there is an increasingly desperate search for new markets. Much of the current discussion about MOOCs and the relationships between formal and informal educational providers are enclosed by the reality of overcoming disruptions to established, systemic patterns of accumulation and profitability. These disruptions are forcing the value incorporated inside previously socialised spaces like higher education into the open, where it can be re-enclosed and commodified.

Thus, in order to generate a meaningful response to the pleas of Bowles and Kernohan for pushing back against the drive for efficiency and for generating alternatives, it is no use framing those alternatives inside-and-against a view of the elite University vs allegedly disruptive, on-line innovations. As Dumenil and Levy, quoted in Basu and Vasudevan, note the point is to understand the place of public higher education inside the systemic realities of capitalism’s drive to re-establish profitability and accumulation using a variety of mechanisms, like indentured study, defining universities as business, outsourcing, efficiency dividends, MOOCs etc.:

the rate of expansion of a capitalist economy is limited by the general rate of profit that it can generate. The intuition is straightforward. Expansion of a capitalist economy is the accumulation of capital; accumulation, in its turn, rests on capitalizing surplus value, i.e., generating and realizing surplus value. Since profit is a form of expression of surplus value, it follows that the rate of profit governs the rate of expansion of the system. On the demand side it has an impact on the inducement to investment; on the supply side, it determines the financing of investment. There is also in addition a link between profitability and stability.

In dishing the Keynesian analysis of austerity and spending Roberts has some salient context for this discussion. He argues that the key in responding to the current crisis of capitalism is to understand the relationships between: government activity; socialisation in the form of spending on public works, education or health; and production/consumption processes that underpin profitability. Roberts states that spending

on education and health (human capital)… may help to raise the productivity of labour over time, but it won’t help profitability. If it goes mainly into government investment in infrastructure, it may boost profitability for those capitalist sectors getting the contracts, but if it is paid for by higher taxes on profits, there is no gain overall. And even if it is financed by taxes on wages or cuts in other spending it will only raise overall profitability if it goes into sectors with a lower ratio of capital to labour.

In terms of the UK economy he notes that “Productivity in productive sectors of the economy is stagnant and investment has collapsed. Holders of capital are accumulating cash, sending it abroad or buying financial assets.” Those financial assets include student debts and institutional bond issues, and he might also add that Capital is looking at ways of cracking open the value contained in public education through labour arbitrage, outsourcing and privatisation, for private accumulation.

On disruption: The disruptive nature of MOOCs or whatever on-line innovation has to be seen inside-and-against the current crisis of capitalism, and the ways in which they exemplify the tensions between the social character of production and the private character of appropriation inside the system. As highlighted by Marx in the Grundrisse, these innovations are ways in which capital restructures production to overcome the barriers imposed by the working class:

[Capital] by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier… the creation of the physical conditions of exchange – of the means of communication and transport – the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it. [pp. 524-5]

Thus, the current discussion about MOOCs or the meaning of higher education or the idea of the University or whatever needs to be framed inside-and-against higher education as a revolutionary means for releasing surplus value and for restoring profitability to the broader system, by overcoming barriers to production and consumption. As Marx and Engels note in the Communist Manifesto, this demands revolutionary practice by the bourgeoisie as a global hegemon.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. … Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind. The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. [p. 13.]

It is, therefore, critical that we see the debate about higher education, efficiency drives, disruptive innovations or whatever, in terms of systemic profitability. As Roberts notes:

A Marxist analysis, in my opinion, recognises that the underlying cause of the crisis in the first place is to be found in the failure of capitalist production to generate enough profit. Then, until capitalism can destroy enough old or “dead” capital (employees, old technology and unprofitable weaker capitalist enterprises) to restore profitability and start the whole thing again, it will languish. In this long depression I reckon this may well require another big slump.

On socialised alternatives: Roberts believes that the alternative is “to end the capitalist mode of production and replace it with democratically controlled, planned social production.” Thus, in responding to Bowles and Kernohan it is no use decrying the subsumption of disruptive innovation inside institutional realities. This is simply a form of false consciousness. At issue are the ways in which knowledge and forms of knowing that are created inside the University, MOOC, disruptive-wherever can be liberated or repatriated for global knowing, and against enclosure and commodification. What forms of knowledge, what skills and practices, what ways of knowing, what mechanisms for analysing global problems, can be emancipated and used to define alternative, socialised value forms? To where can they be liberated or repatriated so that they can be used against-and-beyond their private accumulation for profit? How and where do we ignite critical, political pedagogic practices that enable the democratic production and consumption of knowledge and knowing? These are the questions that ought to frame the idea of (disruptions to) higher education, and its contributions to our collective responses to global crises.

One Response to On memory, profitability, disruption and socialised alternatives

  1. Pingback: The University and the rule of money | Richard Hall's Space

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