On the University and revolution from within

On Sunday Kate Bowles tweeted that:

The tiny problem for the idea that Coursera will “revolutionize” all of our education systems is that revolution usually comes from within.

This made me think about the inside/outside of education, and the idea that certain spaces might be (falsely) considered to be open/closed irrespective of the dynamics of Capital. For Marx in Volume 1 of Capital, there was increasingly no outside, merely the silent compulsion of competition that drives the constant revolutionising of the forces of production across the system. This latter point is critical to any meaningful analysis of the current crisis – this is a systemic process and not one that is neatly contained inside different tentacles of capitalist production. Marx wrote that:

Modern industry never treats views or treats the existing form of a production process as the definitive one. Its technical basis is therefore revolutionary, whereas all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative. By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, it is continually transforming not only the technical basis of production but also the functions of the worker and the social combinations of the labour process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionizes the division of labour within society, and incessantly throws masses of capital and of workers from one branch of production to another. Thus large-scale industry, by its very nature, necessitates variation of labour, fluidity of functions, and mobility of the worker in all directions (Capital, Volume 1, p. 617).

This also impacts the ways in which resistance might be formulated. As Cleaver notes in his theses on the secular crisis the constant revolutionising of different spheres of production is met by a multiplicity of responses. Here, forms of recognition and solidarity across spheres are critical.

When looked at positively, in terms of their struggles for their own interests (beyond mere resistance to the imposition of work), the interests of this complex “working class” are multiple in the sense of not being universally shared. The interests of one group are not exactly the same as those of another even if the realization of those of the one would facilitate the realization of those of the others. Thus there is a problematic relationship between the notion of a working class for-itself and the multiplicity of interests for which different groups of people struggle. “The” working class which struggles against capital, and whose antagonism threatens capital’s survival, is actually a multiplicity moving in a variety of directions made up of equally diverse processes of self-valorization or self-constitution.

In higher education this is important where we identify the spaces through which the sector is being opened up for-profit and for value extraction. Previously I have written about Stephen Ball’s idea of philanthrocapitalism, which drives ‘a move from palliative to developmental giving’, which restructures charity or giving in the name of capitalism. Here benefactors are consumers of social investment and philanthropy for educational ends is geared around entrepreneurialism. There is a clear need to see a business return on cultural or educational giving. Thus, there is an increasing use of commercial or enterprise models of practice as a new generic form underpinning what Ball calls ‘venture philanthropy, philanthropic portfolios, due diligence, entrepreneurial solutions and so on.’ Ball argues that philanthrocapitalists often seek silver bullet solutions to grand challenges, which in turn utilise business partnerships, to develop technical, generic or universally-applicable, and scalable solutions. The idea is that strategic giving that is problem-focused, interdisciplinary, time-limited and high impact will ‘extend leverage’ between the private and public sectors. The Gates’ Foundation and its sponsorship of educational programmes and MOOCs is one such mechanism through which the private cracks open and revolutionises the public space.

Such leverage is also created through policy, as witnessed in the recent Amendments to California State Senate Bill 520 on MOOCs, which promise public funding for the public elements of public/on-line private partnerships. In order to force each segment of California’s public education system (community colleges, state universities and the University) Christopher Newfield argues that Senate President Darrell Steinberg has created a system of “grant programs” for intensifying reliance on online programs and providers, in order “to avoid a serious discussion about [the public/State’s] reinvesting in California’s educational system”:

Steinberg is proposing to impose upon the three segments millions of dollars of new costs. Even if the State does provide funding for these costs that money could be spent in other less speculative ways. Far more likely is that the Segments will be driven into partnerships with online providers so as to share the upfront costs of meeting Steinberg’s timetable.

Nor is there any means set up to assure that no public funds are spent on private interests. Should the segments enter into partnerships with the online providers, they will likely contract out services and use public funds to pay for them. Despite the rhetoric of social justice, venture capital will demand a profitable return on its investments. Moreover, as the for-profit MOOC providers have demonstrated, their business is information and they claim that the information they gather on students is their property. I see no way around the notion that public funds will indeed be diverted to “private aspects” of the partnerships.

This is another mechanism through which the system revolutionises the means of production and division of labour across increasingly intertwined branches of production. The MIT Technology Review makes this point for personal data and the kinds of big data that California wishes to make open and accessible through its educational “grant programs”:

What’s more, the economic importance of products fueled with personal data is growing rapidly. According to the Boston Consulting Group, as methods for basing transactions on a person’s digital records have spread from banks to retailers and other sectors, the financial value that companies derived from personal data in Europe was $72 billion in 2011. The consultants concluded that “personal data has become a new form of currency.”

Access to and control over data and the means by which it can be commodified and marketised therefore becomes one more revolutionary productive force. This is also seen in the recent statements about the Georgia Tech/Udacity/AT&T on-line Master’s Degree partnership about which Inside Higher Ed wrote:

Georgia Tech this month announced its plans to offer a $6,630 online master’s degree to 10,000 new students over the next three years without hiring much more than a handful of new instructors. Georgia Tech and Udacity, a Silicon Valley-based startup, will work with AT&T, which is putting up $2 million to heavily subsidize the program’s first year. The effort, if it succeeds, will allow one of the country’s top computer science programs to enroll 20 times as many students as it does now in its online master’s degree program, and to offer the degree to students across the world at a sixth of the price of its existing program

Placed alongside policy that proscribes public/private partnerships and the public availability of retention, progression and outcomes-related data that emerges from state-funded programmes, this creates a set of spaces inside which the forces of production are restructured for-profit. These types of partnerships show the deep penetration of the private, for-profit sector of the economy into the public sphere: there is no outside of the systemic need to overcome crises of accumulation and the need to maintain the increase of the rate of profit through a control of the organic composition of capital and the rate of surplus value that can be extracted.

In the UK there is an equal avoidance of a serious discussion about the public/State’s funding of education, in spite of the attempts of groups like Million+, for example in its report Do the Alternatives Add-Up? Elsewhere, Professor David Eastwood, the incoming Chair of the Russell Group of Universities, has argued that the Coalition’s refusal to increase the cap on fees for “public” higher education will lead to “a 16 per cent real cut in the tuition income of institutions.” Eastwood argues that with no increase likely before 2017 “That should put a stop to glib discussions about enhancement and improvement. We are managing pretty massive efficiency gains in the delivery of educational programmes over the next five years.” This underscores a point I made on the University and a revitalised public about how specific policy activities that are located in secondary legislation like the Budget, or in technical consultations over white papers and funding, signal “a cultural shift that sets a direction for marketization through tactical engagement. It is less about fighting the battle for ideas in public than it is about laying markers for marketization. One might argue that it is not about creating a deliberative space to discuss the realities of public or socialised education and what the University is for, but it is about cracking or fracturing what exists, in order to extract value from that system.”Thus, the introduction of fees and the subsequent fee-cap, alongside pressure for outsourcing and public-private partnerships, are being used to constrain and then restructure the work of universities as competing capitals, including with for-profit and on-line providers.

As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult to look at the restructuring of higher education as anything other than a revolutionising of the forces of production aimed at overcoming the limits of accumulation in the systemic production process. As Marx notes in the Collected Works (Vol. 5, pp. 431-2), throughout history

some persons satisfied their needs at the expense of others, and therefore some – the minority – obtained the monopoly of development, while others – the majority, owing to the constant struggle to satisfy their most essential needs, were for the time being (i.e., until the creation of new revolutionary productive forces) excluded from any development.

Moreover, Marx argued that it is the mechanisms through which human society could recapture human nature against the profit-motive, which we should seek to reproduce. This is not the human nature of the MOOC-defined, self-made, neo-liberal superman; it is “species life”.

Since human nature is the true community of men, by manifesting their nature men create, produce, the human community, the social entity, which is no abstract universal power opposed to the single individual, but is the essential nature of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth… The community of men, or the manifestation of the nature of men, their mutual complementing the result of which is species-life…” [Collected Works, Vol. 3, p. 217.]

At issue is how to promote such a species-life through education in ways that recapture production as a social activity. This is more pressing as the policy and practice of austerity threaten to unleash revolutionary social forces. As Reuters reports: “German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble warned on Tuesday that failure to win the battle against youth unemployment could tear Europe apart, and dropping the continent’s welfare model in favor of tougher U.S. standards would spark a revolution.” In-part this is more pressing because, as Jehu argues:

we have achieved a five-fold increase in total material wealth produced annually between 1964 and 2012 in the United States. Yet, for all this increase in material wealth, poverty still exists… real material [agricultural] output rises to 500% overall and labor needed in agriculture falls 88%; yet, despite this improvement in material wealth, 43 million workers still live in poverty… Despite these facts, Washington tells us we cannot afford our current material standard of living. Politicians say either retirement has to be delayed and medical coverage cut, or Washington must go still deeper in debt… Now ask yourself: If you are working twice as long as your parents, producing five times as much material wealth, should you be better or worse off than they were? So where did all that increased wealth go? Since you are, in fact, poorer than your parents, it is obvious none of that increased wealth made its way into your pockets.

Inside this systemic process of revolutionising the forces of production and increasing global output, real wages have collapsed in the face of strategies for accumulation. The issue is whether a “direct form of communal manifestations of life carried out in association with others – [that] are therefore an expression and confirmation of that social life” (Marx, Collected Works, Vol. 3, p. 299) might be realised that incorporates increasingly alienated social forces in the global North, as well as those largely ignored in the global South. This requires that we have a more mature discussion of the possibilities for production that lie beyond for-profit. In higher education this includes recognition that the sector is being restructured (revolutionised?) from within, by outsourcing, philanthrocapitalism, MOOCs etc., and that spaces for resistance and refusal need to be created and supported in solidarity actions so that we recapture our existence and our production as a social activity, for-society  rather than for-profit. It is here, and in celebrating existence for-society, that a revolution from within might begin.


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