Educational technology and the crisis

I wrote this as I listened to a Jon Hopkins’ Boiler Room mix.

On Tuesday 10 September, I will be taking part in a conversation about technology-enhanced learning and the crisis. This emerged from some work at the Alpine Rendez-Vous 13 Crisis Forum earlier this year.

ONE: we need to talk about capitalism.

Michael Roberts’ work on the next recession has highlighted that: “the key indicators of sustained recovery in capitalism would be rising rates of profit, a sharp pick-up in business investment and substantial falls in unemployment”. Roberts discusses the structural, secular crisis of capitalism in a podcast here, and his analysis is amplified by Phoenix Capital’s view “that the forecast we’ve maintained for well over two years has been validated: the US is in a DE-pression and both Washington and the Federal Reserve have wasted trillions of Dollars. The reality is that what’s happening in the US today is not a cyclical recession, but a one in 100 year, secular economic shift.” On measures of unemployment, labour participation, and industrial production, Phoenix argue that “We’ve spent literally trillions of US Dollars on Stimulus and bailouts[,] and production is well below the pre-Crisis highs” with “the same percentage of the US population are working as in 1978.” For Phoenix this is a structural, secular depression, with an inability of actors in the system as a whole, rather than in sectors of the system, to re-establish stable forms of accumulation and profit. As Jehu notes over at Re: The People, technical, monetarist mechanisms like quantitative easing do nothing for growth “Since surplus value is only produced by living labor, the purchase of dead labor at a markup in the form of assets does nothing whatsoever to increase the mass of profits.” The same is true of the dead labour embedded in technologies that are imposed for efficiencies or productivity gains or for surveillance in the workplace or for the extraction of rents.

TWO: we need to talk about labour-power.

The reproduction of capitalist social relations is coming at a huge price for those who labour globally in the system, including students. Jehu states that monetary policy in the EU is simply “an attempt to obstruct the working class majorities of the member nations from democratic control over their economies.“ It is this democratic deficit that is apparent in the global North in the secular crisis of capital, as those with economic power seek to reinforce their position through mechanisms of indenture, like increased student debt (indenturing the futures of current and as yet unborn generations), the mechanics of accumulation through bailouts and quantitative easing, and the privatisation of previously socialised, historically-accrued value, like healthcare, resources like water, and education. Elsewhere, the horrors of labour in the global South go unreported in those markets they sustain. These realities emerge from the social relationships that are stitched into “our” technologies.

THREE: we need to talk about technology.

It is only against these political economic realities that the place of the University and of technology inside the University can be understood. Such an understanding demands that we critique technology as part of a totality of objectified human experience. We might start with Marx’s formulation in footnote 4 of chapter 15 of volume 1 of Capital that:

Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare  the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them.

Thus, technologies that are produced and consumed at the limits of “man’s modes” of recasting and reforming social relationships offer critical insights into how capital co-opts research and development inside educational institutions (schools, colleges, universities, MOOCs), in order to restructure education for value formation and accumulation. It is impossible to make sense of the use of technology inside education without political economic critique.

FOUR: we need to talk about technology and resistance.

In his twelfth thesis on the secular crisis, Harry Cleaver noted that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, across both the system a whole and for competing capitals in different sectors of the global economy, is countered by capital through attempts to insert technology or new techniques into production. He states that:

the rise in the organic composition of capital understood as occurring only with a capitalist reorganization of technology that raises productivity and imposes “more work”, [and] we can recognize that this always involves a change in the power relations between capital and the working class. Because the fundamental change involved in such reorganization of technology is the substitution of embodied dead labor (whether in the form of machines or information) for living labor, this tendentially undermines capital’s ability to organize its society through the imposition of work.

There is little sense or point in arguing that technology, as it is imposed inside capitalist social relations, can be emancipatory. It is designed: for personalisation that shapes entrepreneurial pedagogy or activity; or for the extraction of rents; or for an increase in relative surplus value by lowering labour costs or increasing productivity; or for workplace discipline (including of the unwaged labour of students); or for competition between universities as businesses. As Cleaver argues in his fourteenth thesis:

What we really need to do, is not merely to recognize the antagonistic subjects driving the “secular crisis” but to explore the “logics” of these emergent and diverse subjectivities. Such exploration can help us go beyond the appreciation of how they rupture capital to that of articulating and strengthening their development.

Revealing technology’s as a crack for the extraction of value, commodification and privatisation enables Capital’s expropriation of our social relationships for profit to be resisted and pushed-back against.

FIVE: we need to talk about recovering subjectivity.

Resistance and pushing-back are tied to the negation of the marketization of our lives and the negation of technological determinism. This is tied to our ability to fight for a rekindled subjectivity. We need to discover and strengthen how technology might be used to liberate subjectivity (knowledges, practices, organising principles, ways of knowing the world), and, in the words of Cleaver’s fifteenth thesis, to create spaces and places and alliances and allegiances for:

the fabrication and utilization of material connections and communications that destroy isolation and permit people to struggle in complementary ways.

Struggle is everything, and the struggle has to be collective. Not personalised. Not entrepreneurial. Not commodified. As Zibechi notes of the Zapatista Little Schools:

Collective work is one of the cements of autonomy, whose fruits usually spill into hospitals, clinics, primary and secondary education, in strengthening the municipalities and the good government juntas. Not much that has been constructed would be possible without the collective work, of men, women, boys, girls and the elderly.

For the point of education, in the face of this secular crisis, and of socio-political crisis, and of socio-environmental crisis, has to be the organising principles for collective work. It has to be for social solutions rather than for coercion and competition. It has to be for new forms of communal wealth rather than for enclosure and private profit. Thus, in the face of these dualities the point of educational technology has to be re-cast in terms of a critique of liberation.

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