Some notes towards a co-operative pedagogy of struggle

ONE: neoliberalism as a global pedagogy of dispossession

Neoliberalism is a global pedagogical project aimed at the dispossession of free time, and education is a central institutional means for its realisation. This project aims at reinscribing all of social life inside the market and for the extraction of value. Thus, education is a central institutional means for production and control, that is embedded in the fabric of neoliberalism’s social production, and that amplifies its effects. For Stephen Ball it is important to recognise both the factors that make-up neoliberalism, and the mechanisms through which it is enacted. Ball analyses several factors of neoliberalism (pp. 3-4).

  • The economisation of everyday, social life, in order to realise new opportunities for profit.
  • Reconfiguring governance through an appeal to the entrepreneurial self, with the State as regulator and market-maker.
  • The State acting transnationally in concert with supranational bodies like the IMF, the European Central Bank and the World Bank, imposes the control that a free market desires, and removes impediments to the logic of the market.
  • There are several active waves of neo-liberalism: proto (the intellectual project of Hayek and Friedman); roll-back (of Keynesianism); and roll-out (of new state forms, modes of governance and regulation).
  • The creation and extraction of value is predicated upon mobility and connectivity.
  • The (networked) structures that enable neoliberalism are polymorphic and isomorphic.

According to Ball (pp. 12-13), these factors are carried or spread via transnational advocacy networks or TANS, motivated by shared values steeped in marketization and the private, in order to leverage tacit or active consent through: information politics (the ability to call-up data quickly); symbolic politics (the ability to tell meaningful, common sense stories); leverage politics (the ability to call on powerful actors); and accountability politics (the ability to use the rule of money to bring pressure on political actors). This process connects and reveals networks of co-operation seeking to co-opt education for-profit, from philanthropic groups sponsoring MOOCs in concert with academics, through to activist groups like The Heritage Foundation, which declares: 

Subtly or overtly, each generation passes American exceptionalism to the next, be it through innovations like Henry Ford and his assembly line; or Thomas Edison and the light bulb; or Steve Jobs and the iPhone, iPod and iPad; or through the encouraging words of parents to their children, assuring them that they can grow up to be anything they like if they put their minds to it and work hard.

Revealing this process in a participatory way matters because, as I noted about whether universities care too much about students:

We are witnessing a recalibration and enclosure of the idea of the student, not as a co-operative, associational subject, but as a neoliberal agent, whose future has become indentured. This subject is individuated, enclosed and disciplined through her debts and is enmeshed inside a pedagogy of debt, in order that s/he becomes entrepreneurial in her endeavours and outlook. The idea of education… is of indentured study, where the risk of failure is not borne socially, but is transferred to the individual. Thus, the [UK Coalition Government] seeks to extend New Labour’s choice agenda, driven by metrics, data and money, as the university is restructured as a new public service. In this way the student-as-entrepreneur, and data/analytics about satisfaction, retention, progression etc. are used as mechanisms to discipline academic labour. The relationships between academic and student are recalibrated in the face of the rule of money and the cybernetic techniques that underpin it…

This type of problem-based thinking ignores politics and ideology, and is based around the kind of risk-management and algorithm-based high frequency trading that underpins entrepreneurial activity in the financial markets. It is almost wholly divorced from the realities of the humane relationships that academics seek to develop with their students. The corporatisation of data, underscored by profit, negates our humanity.

There are then, as series of tensions inside the University. The University is a confused space that is being restructured around money, profit, performance management, customer relationship management and so on. It is from inside this new public service that [Michael] Gove declared that he wished students to benefit from “the incredible number of opportunities offered by twenty-first century capitalism.” This is the fantasy of the entrepreneurial student inside the treadmill logic of business-as-usual.

Critical then, is an understanding of how cybernetic techniques abstract our everyday existences as students-teachers so that they are controlled and entrepreneurial. The step-beyond that is to describe how critical pedagogies of co-operation and association might be developed that are public, radical and participatory. Or, as Thorburn argues, we need to find mechanisms for actually existing autonomy.

TWO: the Cybernetic Hypothesis as pedagogic project

For Marx in the Grundrisse, as the general intellect of society was appropriated by capital through the application of science and then congealed inside machinery, techniques and technologies for control became crucial. In particular, a culture was created inside which both the high-speed circulation of commodities could become a normatively good thing, and unproductive time was perceived to be unethical. One outcome of this process was the use of technologies to open-up and monitor labour, including academic scholarship, in order that production processes could be systematised and made more lean or efficient. Thus, the collective Tiqqun argued that:

That is to say, cybernetics is not, as we are supposed to believe, a separate sphere of the production of information and communication, a virtual space superimposed on the real world. No, it is, rather, an autonomous world of apparatuses so blended with the capitalist project that it has become a political project, a gigantic “abstract machine” made of binary machines run by the Empire, a new form of political sovereignty, which must be called an abstract machine that has made itself into a global war machine.

As a result, technology has become increasingly inserted inside hierarchies of control, so that judgements about performance can be exerted instantaneously and systemic risk reduced. The overlaying of technological determinants onto societies that can be connected through these flows of data and networks encourages a universal belief in rationality; that the only path to truth is through big data and learning analytics, rather than co-operative judgement.

Thus, as Joss Winn in his notes on The Cybernetic Hypothesis, states:

Cybernetics as manifest in the Internet, ICT and the ‘new economy’, has definitively supplanted the liberal hypothesis. Cybernetics includes liberalism and at the same time transcends it. The critique of liberalism is no longer worth the effort because liberalism is obsolete, nothing more than a ‘residual justification’ for the crimes of the ‘new model’, that is cybernetics.

The development of technocratic, data-driven structures that manage risk and promote control underpins the cybernetic hypothesis. The emergence of cybernetics focused upon the science of control mechanisms, through which the exchange of information would create stability. This is especially important in maintaining the hegemonic power of transnational finance capital through a system that uses digital technologies like high-frequency algorithms to make decisions at high speed. In legitimating an expanding system of hierarchical control that protects the momentum of an inflationary system, information-work and the use of data-mining or analytics to generalise, monitor and control behaviours is vital.

Education forms a critical new terrain inside which high technology is used for control. This includes developing new services like learning analytics, implementing mechanisms for performance management, and predicting futures as educational spaces become financialised through student loans and bonds. Technology is used to reinforce regimes of biopower that seek the panoptic monitoring, surveillance and measurement of all activity. In this view, cybernetics is ‘not just a technological history but a history of the changing social networks that connected these technologies to the function of the state and its management’ (Miller Medina, 2005, p. 17). Thus, economic and technological interdependence restrict human agency and the possibilities for emancipation because cybernetic rationality demands and reinforces certain digital and material behaviours, practices, attributes and competencies. In turn, this crystallises the power of technocrats, administrators or education corporations for risk management, as well as the identification of entrepreneurial behavours.

The fight against forms of cybernetic control is not one of destroying or refusing high technology, but rather focuses upon using technology and technique to reveal the internal, totalising dynamics of capitalism. From this position, alternatives rooted in self-organisation and a societal complexity based on variety, improbability, and adaptability emerge. For Tiqqun, this forms the negation of the cybernetic hypothesis through a return to what it means to be human. A critical role for educationalists using technology inside-and-against the cybernetic hypothesis is to develop educational opportunities that highlight the development of counter-narratives of commons, co-operation, sharing, and openness, and against the separation and alienation of money, price, quality, and competition. As Tronti (p. 105) argued, at issue is the extent to which the forms of control that pervade human existence inside the social factory can be revealed and alternatives critiqued so that ‘capital itself [] becomes uncovered, at a certain level of its development, as a social power’.

This uncovering of a social power with a desire for order, certitude and totality, has been revealed increasingly as a new governance mentality: the crisis revealed as PRISM; or as mastering the internet; as the State’s securitisation of capitalist social relations; and as the Defence Cyber Protection Partnership, which “is being positioned as a model that other industries can replicate to shore up their security.” This is governmentality through cybernetics in the face of the secular crisis:

the problem that capital faces in managing the antagonism of the working class is that of managing not only a shared (though not necessarily allied or even complementary) resistance but also diverse processes of self-constitution repeatedly escaping its rules and precipitating crisis. Capital accumulation requires that capitalist command (thesis) internalize the hostile self-activities of the working class (antithesis) and convert them into contradictions (synthesis) capable of providing dynamism to what is basically a lifeless set of rules/constraints.

On one level, as Joss Winn argues, “Cybernetics entered into the operation of capitalism with the intention of minimizing uncertainties, incommensurability, the kinds of anticipation problems that can interfere in any commodity transaction. It contributes to consolidating the basis for the installation of capitalism’s mechanisms, to oiling Capital’s abstract machine.” On another, as Tiqqun noted cybernetics and systems thinking enable the State to introduce surveillance and data capture devices in the “construction of a decentralised real-time gridding system. The common intent of these devices is total transparency, an absolute correspondence between the map and the territory, a will to knowledge accumulated to such degree that it becomes a will to power.” This neoliberal will-to-power forms an abstract pedagogic project.

THREE: an abstract pedagogic project.

Werner Bonefeld has argued that in order to understand the operating and organising principles on which capitalism is based, we need to understand the processes through which labour or work inside capitalism is abstracted and the relationship of abstraction with time. Understanding time is critical because it underpins how we analyse the production, circulation and exchange of commodities, and their relationship to value or the production of surplus value. Critiquing this is pedagogically powerful, and sits in antithesis to the pedagogical imperative of neoliberalism to abstract life and surplus value. Social production in capitalism is based on the use of labour-power to produce commodities that can be exchanged in the market and realise value that can be set in motion once more as Capital. Thus, Bonefeld quotes Marx’s work in the Critique (vol. 29, p. 286) that ‘[o]n the one hand, commodities must enter the exchange process as objectified universal labour time, on the other hand, the labour time of individuals becomes objectified universal labour time only as a result of the exchange process’. The reality of this is the deep interconnections between processes of production, circulation and exchange, and time, because capitalist social relations emerge from a tension between those who would invoke time-based efficiencies to raise the rate of surplus value extraction and those fighting for more free-time. Time is money and money is time. Bonefeld states:

If then, capitalism reduces everything to time, an abstract time, divisible into equal, homogeneous, and constant units that move on from unit to unit, dissociated from concrete human circumstances and purposes, then, time really is everything. If ‘time is everything, [then] man is nothing; he is, at the most, time’s carcase’ (Marx, 1976, p. 127). Marx expresses the same idea in Capital arguing that the worker is ‘nothing more then [sic.] personified labour-time’ (1983, p. 233). (Bonefeld, 2010, p. 7).

This process of abstraction is critical and it is reinforced educationally. Abstract labour as it is revealed inside-and-against exchange in the circulation of commodities has a value related to time, and specifically as that time is described socially in the market. Central to this idea of abstraction as against concrete labour is the social character of labour in capitalism. Capitalism consists of private labour, purchased for its ability to become labour-power, which under the direction of the capitalist becomes “directly social in its character… [as] socially determined individual production” (Marx, Grundrisse, p. 83). The process of exchange reveals the value of the commodity and the socially-defined time that went into it. As Bonefeld notes (pp. 10-11), this demands equality between commodities in the market based upon time: “Exchange cannot take place without equality, and equality not without commensurability… What the commodities have therefore in common is human labour in the abstract and this labour comprises a purely social reality.” This social reality is based on labour-time expended, and in the drive for productivity or value-for-money or against idle-time, time subsumes people as individual labourers.

This subsumption is driven by the fact that the measure of value is socially necessary labour-time, which objectifies or abstracts the individual from her self. In the production of commodities this labour-power is abstracted from the labourer, and abstracts her from her labour, her products, her time, and her self. Marx (Capital, Vol. 1) viewed socially necessary labour-time as the source of all value. Rather than being conceived of as units of labour measured in hours or days, it is conceived as the amount of labour time required by a worker (or academic/student) of average productivity (and therefore skill), working with tools (like learning technologies) of the average productive potential, required to produce a given commodity (inside the cybernetic hypothesis this might include immaterial, informational or data-driven commodities). Thus, in the higher education context, more-skilled academics reduce the average time and increase productivity, whilst unskilled academics contribute less social value. The current discourse around the knowledge economy, focused upon generating new, technical skills for jobs that have not yet emerged in the name of economic growth, forms part of this agenda. Abstraction is thus a pedagogic project, enforced through neoliberal politics and the mechanics of cybernetics.

Revealing the relationships between increasingly abstracted labour and reduced socially necessary labour time enables value to be seen as a complex social relation, rather than a material practice. This also reveals the pedagogic principles behind the repetition of technology and its automation of creative tasks that abstract academic work from the staff and students engaged in those practices. This level of abstraction of the academic’s labour-power from the process and reality of capitalist work enables social domination, which is impersonal, increasingly rationalised, and managerially constrained. Technology in the knowledge economy reveals how the autonomy and agency of academics and students as knowledge workers can be marginalised where they have no proprietary knowledge that adds to a university’s relative surplus value. Moreover, techniques and technologies enables capital, in the various forms of higher education, to disperse production organisationally through home-working, outsourcing, MOOCs and privatisation into society, in order to remove academic labour’s collective, social power.

This then refocuses pedagogy on the production of the abstracted, entrepreneurial individual capable of regulating herself against abstracted time, both in the here-and-now of producing commodities, and in the indentured future that demands that fees-as-debts are paid-back. Both the present and the future are claimed for Capital as abstracted labour. It is crucial for the expansion of the system based upon value-in-motion, or the extraction of surplus value, that this abstract version of labour working in an universe of abstracted time, is maintained. This rests on the control exerted over labour’s collective, social power. The discipline of the market demands the discipline of capitalist time, more productive labour-time, and a reduction of free-time. Capturing free-time and alienating it from the individual so that it becomes productive of surplus value in some form (through commodifying new services, analytics, relationship management and so on) is a critical, neoliberal, pedagogic project. A question is then, is it possible to liberate time and sociability from capital? If so, can this be enacted co-operatively? 

FOUR: for a pedagogy of struggle

Liberating time from Capital demands really existing autonomy. It demands struggle. For Tiqqun:

“Autonomy” means that we make the worlds that we are grow. The Empire, armed with cybernetics, insists on autonomy for it alone, as the unitary system of the totality: it is thus forced to annihilate all autonomy whenever it is heterogeneous. We say that autonomy is for everyone and that the fight for autonomy has to be amplified. The present form taken on by the civil war is above all a fight against the monopoly on autonomy. That experimentation will become the “fecund chaos,” communism, the end of the cybernetic hypothesis.”

For Miller Medina (p. 22), attempting to recover the governing principles in Chile from 1964-73, “This history, therefore, is not just a technological history but a history of the changing social networks that connected these technologies to the function of the state and its management.” Moreover, the deployment of technologies throughout the State’s institutions “helped solidify a particular articulation of the state that was supported by new claims to legitimate power” (Miller Medina, p. 96). This is not necessarily the co-option of institutions, technologies and techniques for Capital. The example of Chile under President Allende offers a critical analysis of a different possibility. Miller Medina (p. 252) quotes Allende:

We set out courageously to build our own [cybernetic] system in our own spirit. What you will hear about today is revolutionary – not simply because this is the first time it has been done anywhere in the world. It is revolutionary because we are making a deliberate effort to hand to the people the power that science commands, in a form in which the people can themselves use it.

Yet Miller Medina (p. 333) also demonstrates how co-operative technical and technological practices tend to be co-opted in the name of repression:

After the military coup in 1973 the Pinochet government used computer technology in the service of its political repression, surveillance, and disappearance, policies that were part of Operation Condor. Although we are still uncovering information on Operation Condor and do not know the full extent of this cooperative intelligence network, available documents from U.S. and Latin American archives describe the Condor data bank — modeled after the police network Interpol, without its judicial safeguards — and the encrypted Condortel telex network.

One of the questions for radical academics is how to bring alive the co-operative, participatory histories and traditions that have existed, in order to reveal possible alternatives to the neoliberal pedagogic project. This involves uncovering the mechanisms through which academics and practitioners are empowered to say “no” through networks of solidarity and co-operative practices. These examples might include critiques of the following. 

  • The governance principles that underpin the responses of the Co-operative movement to the crisis, not in order to re-establish business-as-usual, but to demonstrate actually existing co-operative, social production.
  • The transnational nature of the co-operatives movement, and the importance of associational democracy in social production and consumption. How might these associational networks enable organic intellectuals to emerge and new ideas to take root against hegemony?
  • The situated, local importance of community co-operative learning trusts as networks of mutual support, like the Burton Co-operative Learning Trust or the Cornwall schools co-operative. Is it possible to use such co-operatives to challenge, occupy and reinvent ideas of impact, observation, gifted-and-talented, school improvement etc.? How might extended partnerships of young people, providers, educators, academics, businesses, parents, work in peer-support groups and wider networks to refuse to be subject to value-in-motion?
  • The models for mutualism that exist in football governance through industrial and provident societies and community interest companies. How might these act as nodes of solidarity that enable association to reinforce co-operative, social production of free-time away from the market?

At issue is whether actions that demonstrate the solidarity of liberation can form a pedagogic project that forms a lived social critique of capitalism, in order to offer an alternative vision for society. In educational terms this then questions whether there are other co-operative governing principles for universities or for higher education at the level of society. This demands that we ask what education is, before we ask what it is for, and it that we see education as a process of becoming that refuses socially-necessary labour time and abstracted labour. It also demands that we liberate free time, and this takes courage in the face of the discipline of the State and the market enacted cybernetically through analytics, big data, biometrics, drones, and attenuated ideas of privacy.

One part of this approach to liberation is to think about mechanisms that disrupt the circuits and production of capital as a social system. These may include renewing Ball’s neoliberal factors co-operatively.

  • The sociability of everyday life, in order to realise new opportunities for co-operation and against value.
  • Reconfiguring governance through an appeal to the co-operating self, with the public and the mutual at its heart.
  • Co-operatives acting transnationally in association and mutuality, to define alternative value-forms that are against the logic of the market.
  • To consider several active waves of co-operation: proto (revealing the intellectual project of the socio-cultural histories of co-operatives); roll-back (of neoliberalism); and roll-out (of new co-operative forms, modes of governance and regulation).
  • The creation and extraction of co-operation is predicated upon mutualism and association rather than individuated mobility and connectivity.
  • The mutual structures that enable co-operation are polymorphic and isomorphic.

In this process we might reduce abstraction and witness new forms of sociability based upon co-operating, rather than having our time and labour co-opted. A different way of connecting our fragmentary natures beyond the market may enable humanity to be made concrete and celebrated. A refusal of abstraction and individuation entails a refusal of the cybernetic hypothesis that maintains the neoliberal pedagogic project. In critiquing the relationships between the individual and the State-market duality in Discipline and Punish, Foucault (p. 138) argued that “These relationships take the form of a multiplicity of often minor processes, of different origin and scattered location across and beyond the state. These overlap, repeat, or imitate one another according to their domain of application, they converge and gradually produce the blueprint of a general method.” The question is whether co-operative education might enable spaces and times (or space-times) for life to be lived as an associational, mutual, transitional process, rather than as an outcomes-based blueprint.


4 Responses to Some notes towards a co-operative pedagogy of struggle

  1. Pingback: The University, technology and co-operation | Richard Hall's Space

  2. Not sure what some of this article means because of the obtuseness of the language. e.g. “Neoliberalism is a global pedagogical project aimed at the dispossession of free time, and education is a central institutional means for its realisation”. Dispossed by whom? education is all around us, all the time. Do you therefore mean formal education organised by nations, regions and institutions. Much of our education is beyond the control of any institution and as information becomes more universally available then there is less control of the state on individual’s ‘education’. Ball’s neoliberal factors are still embedded in an organised society which is what we haven’t got. So those sociological perspectives which are still mired in the existing social structures are being fragmented and disbanded by the power of the Internet and the education beyond the walls of known societies.

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