On co-operation, accumulation and the University

On Tuesday I heard a series of speakers, including Rachel Wenstone from the NUS, Malcolm Ryan as the ALT Conference co-chair, and Alan Ford from the University of Nottingham, speak about educational institutions as spaces for partnership-working between staff and students. This was, in Wenstone’s argument, to be enacted in-part through staff “training”, in Ryan’s through encouraging the student to become a change-agent (although student’s have a rich-history of leading change, witness the current Chilean experience, student activism in Kenya and the almost mythical 1968), and in Ford’s through internationalisation agendas. What emerged might be categorised as forms of entrepreneurial educational activity designed to reassert the hegemony of stories of growth and work, which are in-turn linked to a belief that there is no alternative: to internationalisation agendas that simply act as spaces for commodity-dumping or demand-management, or labour arbitrage; to re-training academics so that they become more productive; to the fetishised student voice. 

This narrative is predicated on the idea that business-as-usual, in the form of economic growth, demands that we submit our lives to the reassertion of stable forms of capital accumulation, and that we submit our views of partnership, or the student voice, or cultural sensitivity, to the dictates of expanding markets. Moreover, this narrative, amplified by the Guardian Higher Education Network’s discussion on HE and economic growth, ignores the political and economic realities of the crisis tendency of the capitalist mode of production. It also ignores global responses from the labour movement to that crisis, in the form of the lessons that are emerging from the current Mexican educational protests, or the waves of education strikes that are planned in the UK, or the precepts based on content, form and structure of education that emerged from the International Student Movement’s Joint Statement. Critically, the latter argued that: “all educational entities/institutions should be democratically structured, meaning direct participation from below as a basis for decision making processes.” This is not the change-agency, or partnership-working that infects most educational discourse in the UK. 

It is, therefore, increasingly difficult to understand the idea of education or the University without an engagement with the immanence of crises in capitalist modes of production, and more especially the systemic inability of Capital to overcome the limits to growth and reproduce itself. Thus, as is argued in a piece on debt and misery in Endnotes:

The differentia specifica of capitalist “economic” crises — that people starve in spite of good harvests, and means of production lie idle in spite of a need for their products — is merely one moment of this larger crisis — the constant reproduction of a scarcity of jobs in the midst of an abundance of goods.

Thus, the dynamic of this crisis is played out through student debt as a gateway to future employability, through the entrepreneurial turn inside universities as wealth generators, through the commodification of research, through the subsumption of student and staff academic labour in the name of the reproduction of the capital-labour relation, and the increasing workload pressures and threat of precarious employment across universities. Yet we witness the ongoing inability of the system to reproduce the capital-labour relation, even in the face of the abolition of non-marketised spaces (free education, free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare and so on), in order to find new demand for commodities and the circuit of capital. These spaces open-up a terrain for accumulation that is based upon the enclosure of place and the separation of people from the land. But as Endnotes states, this separation

has to be perpetually repeated in order for capital and “free” labour to meet in the market time after time. On the one hand, capital requires, already present in the labour market, a mass of people lacking direct access to means of production, looking to exchange work for wages. On the other hand, it requires, already present in the commodity market, a mass of people who have already acquired wages, looking to exchange their money for goods.

This perpetual separation spreads to the virtual space, and enables universities, through MOOCs or distance learning, to open-up new markets, Moreover, through the commodification of digital infrastructures, it enables new services to be turned into products and sold or to be rented out. In this way, although movements claim to be for “open” or “free” on the web, without a democratic control of that infrastructure, and without a social or communal definition of its value, it simply becomes a new set of spaces to be enclosed for the creation of value, or the dictates of competition, or the extraction of rent.

This is witnessed in the drive for technological or technique-driven innovations that can maximise profitability, through an increase in relative surplus value. This, in itself, drives the co-option of universities as competing capitals, as businesses that have been reconfigured financially and technologically for valorisation and productive labour. The need to re-establish profitability and stable forms of accumulation across a global system means that labour needs to be disciplined, for instance through training or entrepreneurial productivity or the threat of precarious employment or a renegotiation of contracts and labour rights. This is part of the cycle of capital that subsumes productive power, in order to enable accumulation and the production of relative surplus value. The latter depends upon increases in productivity that are technologically-driven, through mechanisation, automation, the conversion of services into products, or the forced co-operation of labourers in any production process. However, technological innovation drives unemployment or an attrition on wages, as the labourer’s skills are instantiated inside the machine. As Marx noted in Volume 1 of Capital (p. 627) the expansion of the system beyond its limits is driven

by methods which lessen the number of workers employed in proportion to the increase in production. Modern industry’s whole form of motion therefore depends on the constant transformation of a part of the working population into unemployed or semi-employed hands.

As Endnotes argue:

For Marx it is in and through this process of expanded reproduction that the dynamic of capital manifests itself as its own limit, not through cycles of boom and bust but in a secular deterioration of its own conditions of accumulation.

Thus, the mechanics of accumulation, demand for and types of employment, technologically-mediated changes in production that drive efficiencies, are all interconected. As new sectors, like education, are subsumed inside the logic of capital accumulation and valorisation, and as universities are restructured as competing capitals, the focus becomes ways of maintaining the rate of profit. Thus, it becomes natural that universities, like any other capital, would wish to “economise on labour”, through productivity gains and technical changes.

One might see the rise in internationalisation, including the MOOC agenda, as part of this shift from labour-intensive to capital-intensive production. As Marx noted (Capital, vol. 1, pp. 622-3)

On the one hand… the additional capital formed in the course of further accumulation attracts fewer and fewer workers in proportion to its magnitude. On the other hand, old capital periodically reproduced with a new composition repels more and more of the workers formerly employed by it.

Not only do labour-saving technologies spread across the system, leading to a relative decline in the demand for labour, but they are irreversible, making the drive for constant, entrepreneurial reskilling critical for anyone who wishes to survive in the system. However, more generally the technological determinism that drives the general, relative decline in labour demand also threatens to outstrip capital accumulation. In Capital, Volume 3, Marx argues that over time “moral depreciation” affects the gains made by technological innovation where the new machine:

loses exchange-value, either by machines of the same sort being produced cheaper than it, or by better machines entering into competition with it. In both cases, be the machine ever so young and full of life, its value is no longer determined by the labour actually materialised in it, but by the labour-time requisite to reproduce either it or the better machine. It has, therefore, lost value more or less. The shorter the period taken to reproduce its total value, the less is the danger of moral depreciation; and the longer the working-day, the shorter is that period. When machinery is first introduced into an industry, new methods of reproducing it more cheaply follow blow upon blow, and so do improvements, that not only affect individual parts and details of the machine, but its entire build. It is, therefore, in the early days of the life of machinery that this special incentive to the prolongation of the working-day makes itself felt most acutely.

One outcome of this process as it is generalised is de-accumulation and a secular crisis, whereby both workers and capital fall out of contracting sectors or industries and are unable to find new sectors in which to insert themselves. The drive for reskilling and empoyability in education sits inside this critique, but is also indicative of the inability of more and more workers to reproduce themselves by selling their labour-power. The vast numbers of Ph.D.s without work, the move towards on-line learning, the increasing rates of youth unemployment across the globe, are all indicators of this secular crisis. We increasingly see an educated class of workers who are unable sell their labour-power at the rate they need to pay down their debts, to act as consumers, and to eat/clothe/shelter themselves (i.e. reproduce themselves), that is assuming they can actually find work at all. In Marx’s terms (see Chapter 25 of Volume 1 of Capital) we are seeing the proletarianisation of ever-increasing numbers of educated young people:

who produce[] and valorise[] “capital”, and [are] thrown onto the street as soon as [they] become [] superfluous to the need for valorisation.

One caveat to that is that it is through the policy activity of the State, in converting the process of education into a service for Capital (through training in basic commodity or leveraged skills, or in creating spaces for skills that can be commodified), and then into a commodity for valorisation (like the creation of courses that must be purchased by students using a debt-driven fee, or the commodification of research as knowledge transfer or incubation, or the sale of student data to publishers), that education is transformed. Critical in this transformation is the subsumption of the circuits of educational practices and knowledges inside the circuits of capital. Education (c.f. low-cost degrees, student-as-consumer or entrepreneur, or MOOCs) becomes a series of individually-purchasable commodities, which open-up new markets and mass markets, as costs fall and production increases [pace Endnotes].

The process of academic proletarianisation, in the reduction of academic labour to low-cost production and consumption of courses or educational commodities, or precarious employment, or debt-driven partnership between staff and students, is that there are few escape routes outside of the system. This is more than the politics of having to sell ones labour-power in a market, in order to reproduce oneself. It is governed by the fact that specific process innovations inside education as a business-sector, driven by technological innovation, tends to lead to unemployment as labour is automated. The promise, witnessed in the UK Government’s new obsession with the digital as the backbone of new jobs and employability, runs up against the historical reality that innovation drives an attack on labour costs including rising unemployment, and that setting surplus labour or capital “free” forces them to look to sectors with decreasing labour requirements themselves (e.g. nanotechnology, cloud technology, biotechnology are each incredibly mechanised).

In part these decreased labour requirements are forced by the generalisation of productivity gains and technological innovation globally across the system. As the system has automated manufacture, and global demand for manufacturing labour falls, there is less need for co-operation between labourers to be enforced. Thus, valorisation is based not upon co-operation, as Marx argued in Capital Volume 1, but upon collaboration between individuals acting as entrepreneurs in a global economy. However, automation leads to a diminished scale of accumulation, and inevitably to crisis. As Marx noted in Chapter 16, central to an understanding of crisis was the relationship between stable forms of accumulation, technological innovation and labour-efficiencies, and the production of relative surplus value:

The production of absolute surplus-value turns exclusively upon the length of the working-day; the production of relative surplus-value, revolutionises out and out the technical processes of labour, and the composition of society. It therefore presupposes a specific mode, the capitalist mode of production, a mode which, along with its methods, means, and conditions, arises and develops itself spontaneously on the foundation afforded by the formal subjection of labour to capital. In the course of this development, the formal subjection is replaced by the real subjection of labour to capital.

However, for Endnotes, in the current secular crisis of capitalism, even the real subsumption of sectors that were previously unproductive and not directly part of the valorisation process cannot halt the:

Unprecedented weakness of growth in the high-GDP countries over the 1997-2009 period, zero-growth in household income and employment over the whole cycle, the almost complete reliance on construction and household debt to maintain GDP — all are testament to the inability of surplus capital in its financial form to recombine with surplus labour and give rise to dynamic patterns of expanded reproduction.

One outcome is generalised proletarianisation. As they go on:

the trajectory of surplus capital distorts the trajectory of surplus labour described by Marx, and not only in the ways that we have already described. Most importantly, surplus capital built up in international money markets over the last 30 years has masked some of the tendencies to absolute immiseration, through the growing debt of working class households. This tendency, which has kept the bottom from falling out of global aggregate demand, has equally prevented any possibility of recovery, which would be achieved only through the “slaughtering of capital values” and “setting free of labour”. For while asset-price deflation may raise the possibility of a new investment boom, the devalorisation of labour-power will, in this context, only lead to increasing levels of consumer default and further financial breakdowns. Thus it is not only its capacity to generate employment, but the sustainability of the recovery itself which remains in question today… Any question of the absorption of this surplus humanity has been put to rest. It exists now only to be managed: segregated into prisons, marginalised in ghettos and camps, disciplined by the police, and annihilated by war.

In understanding the changes that are impacting the higher education sector, developing a critique of the relationships between technology and technological innovation, new managerialsm and financialisation, and the impact of structural weaknesses in global capitalism, is critical. Moreover, it is important to critique these changes historically and geographically, in order to understand how political economics shapes the space in which higher education policy and practice is recalibrated for capital accumulation and profitability. Educational innovations like staff-student partnerships, students-as-change-agents, open educational resources, MOOCs, bring your own device, personal learning networks etc. have to be seen in light of the relationships between: technological innovation; the competitive demand to overcome the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall; the disciplinary role of the integral State in shaping a space for further capital accumulation, against labour; the relationship between labour- and capital-intensity; and the subsumption of networks and network theory to the neoliberal project of accumulation and profitability.

Inside the University a critical question becomes what is academic labour for? Can it be reinscribed for co-operative practice, as against its subsumption inside mechanics for collaboration as neoliberal practices of enforced connection and coercian inside the market for valorisation. This is important where, as global student communiques remind us, co-operation is underpinned by a constant and immanent democratising of the organising principles and organisation of our society and our work. Collaboration inside the market can only offer a politics of subsumption in the search for outlets for profitable investment for supluses and new sources of demand.

At issue for academics and student is recovering the mechanisms through which their labour is made collaborative, as opposed to co-operative, and through which it is co-opted or coerced for valorisation. As Jonathan Davies reminds us capitalist modernity, and the reproduction of the capital-labour relation, is predicated upon control:

coercion is the immanent condition of consent inherent in capitalist modernity. As long as hegemony is partial and precarious, hierarchy can never retreat to the shadows. This dialectic plays out in the day-to-day politics of governance networks through the clash between connectionist ideology and roll-forward hierarchy or ‘governmentalisation’.

Moreover, Friedman reminds us that it is control that centres our (academic) labour in the process of valorisation, and in the subsumption of the processes and practices of education to services and commodities:

The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. Markets function and flourish only when property rights are secured and can be enforced, which, in turn, requires a political framework protected and backed by military power… the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

How and where might we contest the idea that education, and that the University, must reproduce forms of entrepreneurial activity that reassert the hegemony of stories of growth and work? Can this contestation be done inside the University? Or is the game up? Is the only possibility to fight for alternatives beyond formal institutions as we liberate knowledges, skills, technologies and practices from inside? Is it possible to do anything other than “re-appropriate (‘detonate’), ‘occupy’, these moments of space-time through ‘a new pedagogy of space and time’, which can be characterised as the production of critical knowledge in everyday life” (Neary and Amsler, p. 108)?

2 Responses to On co-operation, accumulation and the University

  1. Pingback: On the Education (Information Sharing) Bill and accumulation | Richard Hall's Space

  2. Workers, for example, seldom owned capital or land, nor did they start their own businesses. Land owners, the “landed gentry,” almost never did manual labor, nor did they get involved in starting or owning factories. In 18th century England, labor, capital, land, and entrepreneurship were not just four categories of factors of production, they were four distinct socio-economic groups.

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