Some notes on the associational and democratic organising principles of a co-operative University

ONE: outing capitalism

We need to talk about capitalism. We need to talk about this because of the systemic failure of capitalist counter-measures to enable the process of accumulation to be stabilised, and of growth to be renewed. The failure of these counter-measures, including the incorporation of new markets, the extraction of new forms of liquid energy, the printing of money, the redistribution of capital from production to services and financialiation, and the attack on labour rights/wages, is seen in the purely economic discourse that wraps around both everyday life and public policy.

What this ongoing failure tends to highlight is the opportunity to develop lasting critiques of the mechanics of capitalism, its social relations and organising principles. Across the range of ruptures that currently infect capitalism, from the failure to lever growth across the global North in spite of counter-measures to the ongoing social protests in Brazil, Chile, China, Egypt and elsewhere, we have a moment when the structuring realities of capitalism as an historically-situated system of domination can be revealed. For Postone (p. 70), this is central to a critique of our unfreedom. Thus,

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.’

What becomes more critical is our ability to demonstrate both the historical and the socially-constructed nature of the objective relations of capitalism. Understanding “the systemic constraints imposed by capital’s global dynamic on democratic self-determination” (Postone, p. 79) is then the object that underpins the deliberation of alternatives. However, these alternatives also need to be debated in the face if the lived realities of their emergence inside capitalism, so that it becomes possible to recognise how

human social production has been accomplished through ongoing historical injustice. The Industrial Revolution’s massive amplification of material wealth was founded on the exploitation of both individual and social labors, and also on the increasing ownership and concentration of the tools and other means of production in the hands of capital. Historically, human sociality in production has been brought about when the worker’s labor is expropriated by the conventions of private property and accumulated stock; that is, it has come about in an alienated form. The benefit of human sociality for the productive process as a whole has been founded on an alienated distribution wherein labor is not returned its due. (Wendling, p. 33)

Is it possible for the social relations that are reproduced transnationally for the valorisation of value and for the seizure of surplus value by an elite class, and which reduce labour through processes of arbitrage to a factor of production, to be resisted? Is it possible for resistance to liberate human subjectivity?

In determining answers to these questions, it is important to out the threats to the existence of capitalism: first, from a revelation of the mechanisms through which its internal contradictions and crises arise, based in-part on politicising issues of environmental catastrophe and social justice; second, from a revelation of the systemic failure to reassert stable accumulation on a global basis, based in-part on politicising issues of intergenerational justice and disenfranchisement; and third, from a revelation of the socio-historical nature of solidarity that emerges from global, social protest and resistance. As Cleaver writes about this secular crisis of capitalism, it is crucial that we crystallise the multitude of “antagonistic forces and trends which are inherent in its social structure and which persist through short term fluctuations and major restructurings”, so that we are able to delineate “the study of the struggles for liberation from the constraints of capitalism as a social system.”

This is how I begin to respond to Joss Winn’s recent argument for the post-capitalist University that is inside-and-against the existing University, which exists as means for the valorisation of capital. He argues that:

agency should not be measured by the extent that we are able to resist or abolish the system of domination, but instead a dialectical approach would recognise that a post-capitalist university would be developed out of the conditions of possibility which the existing university has produced. In other words, an ‘anti-capitalist’ approach misses both the point of resistance and the target. What is required is the overcoming of the capitalist modes of valorisation.

Disruption of the University or higher education as a mechanism for reproducing the structuring inequalities of capitalism might include developing histories and practices rooted in the commons or community/gift-based economies, which are predicated on alternative forms of distribution and production. However, a more useful place to start is the organising principles of the University inside capitalism, and their relationship to competition and co-operation.

TWO: competition or co-operation?

As the work of Simon Clarke highlights, the realities of competition and co-operation need to be seen in light of the concept of value, which is characteristic of a society in which social relations emerge between independent producers regulated through market-mechanisms. For Marx, this has an economic, quantitative form that emerges from the processes of accumulation, and also a social, qualitative form that underpins class struggle. In-part this struggle takes the form of the ownership of labour and the mechanisms through which labour-power is reduced to a wage. However, it also enables a discussion of the specific character of labour that creates value; of capitalist work as specifically human labour.

Thus, revealing Capital as value-in-motion, as a system able to expand itself through the treadmill dynamics of competition, or as `self-valorising value’, enables a richer analysis of the mechanisms through which this expansion takes place. These mechanisms include competition and co-operation, and they apply as much to the University as any other competing Capital. In Chapter 13 of Volume I of Capital, Marx treats co-operation as the logical foundation and the historical starting point of capitalist production: the point of departure for manufacturing through the real subsumption of labour. Revealing the forms of co-operation inside the factory, demonstrates how capitalists used co-operative practices to even out the differences between individual workers and to give labour a “socially average character” (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, pp. 440-41). Moreover, co-operation in the manufacturing process is focused around capital intensity, delivering economies of scale, and reducing the costs of production, as well as driving efficiencies through changes to the labour process.

Co-operation rooted in capitalist production processes is thus predicated on competitive advantage, and this makes the subjection of labour to capital a “real condition of production” (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 448). Moreover, the productive power of collective labour appears to be a “productive power inherent in capital” (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 451). Thus, co-operation is the fundamental form of the capitalist mode of production and within the factory this enables: new forms of the division of labour; the deskilling of labour; the domination of man by the machine and time; and, the separation of mental from manual labour (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, pp. 542-53). Thus co-operation, and especially machinic co-operation, forms a weapon in the struggle of capital against labour.

We might then ask whether it is possible to utilise forms of social co-operation to overcome the alienation inherent in capitalism and to liberate human subjectivity? Do the realities of labour as a function of the valorisation process mean that it is not possible to imagine alternatives, however co-operative in nature they may be? Can co-operation help overcome the realities of accumulation by dispossession, which separate “the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realisation of their labour” (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 874)?

A starting point, as Marx highlights in Volume I of Capital, is to reveal the structures inside which co-operation forms:

The capitalist process of production… seen as a total, connected process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capital-relation itself; on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer. (p. 724)

One proposed mechanism for opposition is to reintroduce the idea of co-operation, perhaps as opposed to fetishising the structure/reality of co-operatives. Such a reintroduction would create politicised spaces for associational democracy. These might be worker- or producer-co-operatives, through which democracy is produced and reproduced as an organising principle. Moreover, their associational nature might enable solidarity between spaces that are formed co-operatively and democratically.

We might then ask how might co-operation reinforce or rupture the incessant reproduction and perpetuation of separation inside the system? Is it possible to reveal spaces or to liberate time that stand against expropriation, inequality, uncertainty, injustice and poverty? Can these spaces, times, or space-times be co-operative? If they might be co-operative then what do they imply for our understanding of labour or capitalist work, and for the organising principles of a society that is predicted on value (or self-valorising value)?

THREE: the co-operative university and associational democracy?

Recasting the idea of the co-operative university demands that we reveal the organising principles of the neoliberal university, which politicises the space-time of higher education as means for accumulation. This demands that we investigate the historical and material nature of the University and the extent to which co-operative practices or knowledges or space-times can be inscribed inside it or liberated from it. This is important for Joss Winn who writes:

Taking this view, the trajectory of higher education and its conceived role and purpose in public life over the last century can only be fully understood through a critique of capitalism as the historical mode of production which (re-)produces the university. This critical, intellectual effort must be combined with practical efforts to take control of the means of knowledge production so as to assume a democratic, co-operative form.

In some recent notes on the University, the state and democratic protest, I reflected on this in terms of liberation and association.

At issue is where we create/liberate spaces in which debates can take root. In an interesting set of tweets this month Jehu has argued the following:

“If you want to fight capital, your cannot fight it on its own terms; you must force it to fight on terrain it does not control.

“The capitalists control money; they control production; and they control the state — why would you choose to fight there?

“What the capitalists do not control is your free time. They have no way to convert this free time into capitalist profits.”

Jehu then reiterates Marx and Engels’ points around the need for association that:

“In labor theory the interest of a class, ‘achieves an independent existence over against the individuals’.

“Since the proletariat has no class interest, it can put an end to all classes.

“This argument is absolutely critical to Engels’ and Marx’s argument. because it means they have no choice but to enter into a voluntary …

… association to control their conditions of life together.”

You can read Jehu’s longer position on the difference between association and the State. However, he makes the important points that:

“The critical concept [is]the relation of the state to the class whose interest the state represents in an ideal form… The ideal expression of the interest of the bourgeois class, its general representative, is the bourgeois state… the proletariat have no choice but to enter into a voluntary association to control their conditions of life together. No state can give them this control, only their association… [the proletariat] is incapable of acting as a class and must act as individuals, these individuals must abolish class politics itself — they must overthrow the state.”

In a later post, Jehu quotes Zilbersheid reminder that “the abolition of labor [is] one of Marx’s most important ideas:

“At the core of the highest phase of communist society, as described in Marx’s early writings, is the abolition of labour. The more famous abolition of private property, the well-known abolition of the state, and the lesser-known abolition of the division of labour are all conditional upon the abolition of labour itself.

“At issue then are the mechanisms through which education is recalibrated to reduce free-time and to maintain the legitimacy and hegemony of the bourgeois state.”

Joss Winn develops this point when he writes that we need to out capitalism, and in particular “the domination of the logic of value, which mediates labour and therefore all social relations”. He notes that “it is not sufficient to control the specific means of production i.e. a ‘firm’. The problem must be tackled at all levels of society, locally, nationally and internationally, in order to overcome the overwhelming logic of this valorisation process located in both the production and the exchange of commodities”.

One way of beginning to address this problem might be to look again at the associational and democratic circuits not of the common but of the commune. When writing about the Paris Commune, Marx argued that the Commune stood in antithesis to the Napoleonic Empire, as the positive form of the Republic. Moreover, he argued that through education, the general intellect/science was freed from the fetters placed upon it by class and government, in order that the Commune could represent the idea of self-government for the producers. This form of self-government was anti-hierarchical and served:

as a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore class rule. With labour emancipated, every man becomes a working man, and productive labour ceases to be a class attribute (Marx, 2008, p. 50).

Moreover, this form of anti-economic, collective self-government was predicated upon co-operation and the abolition of labour or capitalist work through communism.

If co-operative production is not to remain a sham and a snare; if it is to supersede the capitalist system; if united co-operative societies are to regulate national production upon common plan, thus taking it under their own control, and putting an end to the constant anarchy and periodic convulsions which are the fatality of capitalist production – what else, gentlemen, would it be but communism, “possible” communism? (Marx, 2008, p. 50).

Inside the University as means for the production of value this requires what Gill (p. 19) has identified as resistance to “divisive, individualizing practices, [to] the silences around them, [to] the fact also that people are too exhausted to resist and furthermore do not know what to resist or how to do so.” These individualised practices are framed inside the creation of entrepreneurial, autonomous, self motivating, responsibilised subjects, and they underpin delegitimisation that is gendered, racialised and classed, and too-often based on competition.

Outing the dynamics of individuated competition and restating the possibilities of association, solidarity and alliance are key to the definition of a co-operative University that is inside-against-and-beyond the neoliberal, entrepreneurial University. As Cleaver notes:

Competition” has become a prominent slogan of domination in this period of international capitalist restructuring — one used to pit workers against workers. We need to defetishize its meaning by showing how it is merely a particular way of organizing the class struggle. Within the context of Marxist crisis theory we need to do the same and relocate competition within the class struggle rather than outside it… we should substitute the politics of alliance for the replacement of capitalism by a diversity of social projects. A politics of alliance against capital to be conducted not only to accelerate the circulation of struggle from sector to sector of the class, but to do so in such a manner as to build a post-capitalist politics of difference without antagonism.

Association, solidarity and alliance in the space-times that are revealed by the University resist the confinement of social reproduction within limits set by the value-form of labour. They resist the capitalisation of humanity, or our degrading reproduction as human capital (see Rikowski). Paraphrasing Marx, the purpose of the co-operative University based upon associational democracy is to create and liberate forms of space-time (Commons, co-operatives, clubs, social centres, communes, whatever) that enable human beings to distinguish between the techniques employed by capital for valorisation, and to direct their attacks, not against these material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used. Moreover, the associational and democratic organising principles of such a co-operative University need to be predicated on alliance and solidarity with other educational and non-educational forms of resistance. As Clarke argues (2002, p. 55) “The only force that could change the world was the self-organisation of the direct producers who would abolish the production of commodities based on capital and bring social production under conscious social control.”

Defining the associational and democratic organising principles of such a co-operative University forms the task of refusing and pushing-back against neoliberal enclosure of the reality of University life. This is not to recuperate an ideal of the University against the historical realities of capitalism. It is to recuperate the ideas of association, solidarity and alliance, in order to liberate spaces and times for social co-operation and co-operating. One outcome may be the mechanisms through which social production under democratic, social control, can reveal and crack the realities of valorisation.

FOUR: six sets of questions

1. What does this mean for the governance structures of universities? What does it mean for the hierarchical and alienating management and adminstration structures of universities?

2. What does this mean for the university as means for the production of value, as enclosed by: regulators like funding councils and quality agencies; financial regulatory networks, like credit ratings agencies; and transnational activist agencies like the World Bank and IMF?

3. What does this mean for the recalibration of universities against the discourses that are used to restructure them, like impact, entrepreneurship, and employability? What does this mean for academic labour?

4. What does this mean for the fetishisation of the student voice as opposed to participatory democratic engagement by students in the organisation of the University and the curriculum?

5. What does this mean for the organising principles of the curriculum, and the definition of a critical pedagogy that reveals the secular crisis and responses to it?

6. What does this mean for the idea of the University as a public good?


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