On the domination of merchants in higher education

Merchants dominate producers now. Commercial capital and money-dealing capital dominate productive capital. The expropriation of surplus value from producers by merchant capital is a primary source of profit. In educational production, in the production of curriculum resources, in the funding of research centres, in the building of physical and technological infrastructures, in the deployment of learning analytics, in the management of the student loan book, do educators and/or students have hegemony? Do educators and/or students dominate the agenda? In the idea of open education or of the MOOC, who has power? When we are told that education must become effective or efficient or innovate, who is heard? In the deployment of organisational development or of lean systems thinking or of zero-hours contracts or of £9,000 fees, who has a voice and who is marginalised? 

It is worth re-thinking how merchant, credit and finance capital affect the inner workings of education, in particular as universities are being reconstructed as businesses. As they are being reconstructed as competing capitals, subject to the coercive logic of competition. And it is coercive. The coercive role of money as it is insinuated inside educational practice reinforces its own reification and more importantly fetishizes, for example, the student, or the entrepreneur or technology. As Pilling noted, Marx identified this idea of fetishisation as it flows through the bourgeois political economics of the kind that serves as analysis of the current crisis. He wrote:

under commodity production relations between men take the form of relations between ‘things’. The social relations are indirect relations, relations mediated through these things, and men simply ‘represent’ or ‘personify’ these things in the market place. Now Marx chastised the political economists for taking these forms ‘as given’ (by Nature) and not as social forms arising under definite historical conditions, forms which would therefore disappear under new social conditions. Those who accept the social relations of capital ‘uncritically’ in effect attribute to things in their immediate manifestation properties which, in point of fact, have nothing in common with this immediate material manifestation as such. The attention of Ricardo was directed almost exclusively to discovering the material base of definite social forms. These forms of social being were taken as read and therefore lying outside the scope of further analysis. It was Marx’s aim to discover the origin and development of these social forms assumed by the material-technical production process at a definite stage in the development of the productive forces.

In the current recalibration of education, we witness a media that denigrates public education and celebrates charter schools or academies, we witness a higher education for employment rather than for being, we witness a fetishisation of the student at the heart of the system, we witness think tanks related to global consultancies like McKinsey or PA or Pearson or to institutes like the IPPR calling for public/private partnerships and marketised open education. In each of these witnessings, we are unable to step away from the specificity of “broken education” (see, for example, this PA Consulting Delivering Education Reform paper), in order to critique the structures of domination, and who has power, and why. In pushing back against charter or free schools alone, or in pushing back against student-as-entrepreneur, or in pushing back against credit ratings for universities, we cannot possibly make sense of these individual aspects unless we develop a critique of how they relate to the generality of the reproduction of capital.

What we are witnessing for instance in the open education movement is its fetishisation as an open threshold of access, as low-cost of entry, as emancipatory, as freeing-up resources for “developing nations”. What we do not see is its co-option by commercial capital, in the form of global educational merchants like Coursera or EdX or FutureLearn, for the extraction of surplus value and for labour arbitrage and for commodity-dumping. Coursera states that it:

is an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. Our technology enables our partners to teach millions of students rather than hundreds. We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

Coursera then mediates flows of educational products that it does not produce, in terms of the content or pedagogies of its partners or the data that is harvested from its students. One interesting point here is that for-profit educational merchant capital drives the specific development of capitalist, educational production that is separated from the sphere of production. It is not based on direct exchange between producers and consumers, but on mediated and just-in-time provision. So it is subject to the same drives to maximise the extraction of surplus value from producers and products without contributing to the circuit of production, except in forms that enable speed-up or mobility.

In the case of FutureLearn this means developing an organisation structure that is exclusive and excluding of certain providers or producers, based on maximising profits. Thus, David Willetts argued:

FutureLearn is not accessible for all of our universities. They have taken a view about the universities that they are going to allow into FutureLearn, so the other universities are going to need another route if FutureLearn won’t have them and there are other providers around and of course, part of what they will offer is help in some of the analytics as well. I think this is coming up the agenda, because clearly other universities outside the Russell will want to go down the MOOC route as well, and I completely understand that, and if I were in their shoes I would want them to do it. So there are other platforms that you may want to join, where including, and I am sure included in their terms, will be assistance in the analytics that you need to get your courses online. 

In response Tim O’Shea noted that:

I think you were correctly cautious about the idea that the Government would intervene to support a particular platform provider, because there is a diversity of platform providers in the US, there is actually three in Silicon Valley, there is FutureLearn here, and then there are some free platforms, like Course Builder, that is provided by Google, so I think for the government to intervene would be messy.

In facilitating corporate power, intervention may be denied but in creating an education market through secondary legislation, state intervention is critical. Thus, open education or the MOOC or whatever technological or organisational innovation has to be critiqued, not in terms of student costs or empowerment or democratising of learning, but inside-and-against the flows of capital and the attempt to reassert stable forms of accumulation. Thus Sarah Grossman in the Chronicle relates the profusion of commercial MOOCs to international competition, the needs of venture capital for spaces in which to invest surpluses, and to the extraction of surplus value through education at work:

Japan’s answer to Coursera and edX, Schoo, announced this week that is had raised $1.5-million from venture-capital firms, including Itochu Technology Ventures, the Anri Fund, and the Incubate Fund. Offering more than 130 courses, Schoo is aimed at a Japanese audience of mainly office workers in their late 20s and early 30s.

The market, defined by corporates operating as commercial capitalists, is divorced from the realities of educational production as a social activity, and is recalibrated around the individual production and consumption of educational services and products. Thus, students are recalibrated not as social learners but as individual entrpreneurs able to access educational services and products in a global market.

However, what is also clear in this process of commercialising education is Marx’s view in Volume 3 of Capital that where merchant capital is hegemonic, then limits emerge in the spaces for productive or industrial capital. Marx argued that:

Within capitalist production merchant’s capital is reduced from its former independent existence to a special phase in the investment of capital, and the levelling of profits reduces its rate of profit to the general average. It functions only as an agent of productive capital. The special social conditions that take shape with the development of merchant’s capital, are here no longer paramount. On the contrary, wherever merchant’s capital still predominates we find backward conditions. This is true even within one and the same country, in which, for instance, the specifically merchant towns present far more striking analogies with past conditions than industrial towns.

The independent and predominant development of capital as merchant’s capital is tantamount to the non-subjection of production to capital, and hence to capital developing on the basis of an alien social mode of production which is also independent of it. The independent development of merchant’s capital, therefore, stands in inverse proportion to the general economic development of society.

Independent mercantile wealth as a predominant form of capital represents the separation of the circulation process from its extremes, and these extremes are the exchanging producers themselves. They remain independent of the circulation process, just as the latter remains independent of them

So Marx argued that where commercial capital and money capital dissolve previous forms of production and destroy the communities on which they were based, then they in-turn they become the community. So the public University is declared to be beyond hope and is under global pressure to reform, or become revolutionised as an organisational form for the accumulation of capital, be that social, cultural or commercial/financial. David Harvey refers to this as the “solvent effect” that is also conjunctural with the development of a world market, alongside flows of commodities, virtual trade, new colonialism, and the increasing subordination in this current phase of capitalism of production to trade and commerce. The domination of commercial capital over production is witnessed in: working conditions of outsourced employees, generally in the global South, in call centres and factories that produce consumer goods; the labour rights of those mining the raw materials that go into the same consumer goods; and the proliferation of zero-hour contracts, precarious employment and the generaton of a surplus population (witness the growing number of Ph.D.s with no chance of tenure or the UK’s free schools that can require no teaching qualifications). Witness Apple’s sub-contracting of labour to Pegatron and Foxconn and the recent claims made about labour costs and labour rights related to Taskrabbit, or the claims about labour arbitrage related to teachers, the use of adjunct labour and MOOCs.

However, as Marx writes in Volume 3, this also re-focuses us on the act of production, rather than on the circuits of money or commercial capital, as the truly revolutionary social activity. Thus, David Wiley’s call at #opened13for open education to save students a billion dollars cannot be seen as revolutionary or democratising. It needs to be critiqued as fetishistic. What does it tell us about who has power in the open education movement? What does it tell us about the roles of merchants, in the form of commercial and money-dealing capital, in the open education movement? What does it tell us about open education as a discourse of power where money drives the agenda? What does this tell us about our social relationships and the production of a pedagogy that is truly critical?

The problem with reducing open education to a discourse related to money is that far from enhancing democratisation, it reinforces the impact of proletarianisation noted above. So when Willetts argues for MOOCs as opening-up new markets for UK business, or when educators give keynotes that focus upon saving student money, or where educators celebrate conferences with partners in the petrochemical industry, transnational finance capital, the Rand Corporation and Pearson (as well as organisations more acceptable to left-leaning academics), it is important to ask about the role of power in the relationships that frame that educational space. Where does power lie between finance, merchant and productive capital, and the individual producers and consumers of educational products? The domination of commercial or finance capital drives low prices in the sphere of production, and that restructures organisational forms through efficiency drives or technological innovation. Where educational corporations control most of the surplus value that is produced they can define production (processes, labour rights, shifting indemnities, who manages risk). One of the outcomes of this is labour arbitrage and a refusal to negotiate with labour, or an attack on trades unions. As employment is made precarious amongst individuated and separated educational producers, collectivisation is negated and ultra-exploitation or proletarianisation emerges.

So we need to move away from fetishizing the MOOC or the student or the money savings that can be made or the democratising of educational life, to examine how merchants dominate over our educational experiences, inside a new world market that has been opened-up by both the nation State and transnational organisations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. We need to examine how our modern condition as labourers inside higher education is being revolutionised by technology and new organisational forms like MOOCs, as a result of the evolutionary processes that enable capitalism to overcome the limits imposed by crisis. These limits are socio-economic (fossil fuel depletion, climate change and so on) and are recalibrated as sustainable business or green growth, and they are economic in the current depression.

At issue for educators is how do we read this evolution? Is it to be fetishized as a specific and superficial function of the present? So do we really think that it is technology that is opening-up emancipatory or democratic educational possibilities? Or are those technologies and organisational forms a result of capital attempting to overcome the limits imposed by a falling rate of profit and labour relations? Is open education, in fact, to be analysed in terms of the general rules of motion of capitalism? Where money and commercial capital hold sway, as they do in the current condition, overcoming spatial and temporal barriers through mobility enable Capital to dominate over production and consumption. How should educators react?

However, there is a moment of hope. As Harvey (pace Marx) notes, merchant capital is predatory but it is subordinate to the production of surplus value, even if it controls those who produce it. Therefore, that merchant class and its financial co-operators have to make an ideology, media etc. in its corporate image, in order to underpin its power. This connects to Britt’s 14 points on the rise of the fascist state. As Jehu notes:

The present crisis arises from the fact that there is a mass of superfluous capital that cannot, under any circumstances, become real capital — that is, cannot produce surplus value and, therefore, profit. This mass of superfluous capital poses the constant threat to the mode of production of a general devaluation of the existing capital as a whole. If a general crisis of devaluation is to be avoided, the state must run deficits, i.e., it must spend more than it takes in in tax revenue. State deficit spending is, therefore, not determined by the needs of society (and, in particular, by the needs of the social producers), but by the needs of the owners of capital, who, if they are to avoid a nominal devaluation of this superfluous capital, must hand it over to the state to be consumed unproductively in return for interest payments.

The question is how to reveal and critique the material conditions of the working class, including those of teachers, educators and students, as they are subordinate to autonomous commercial and/or finance capital. How is it possible to recuperate the autonomy of educational producers in a way that pushes back against the hegemony of venture capital or MOOC providers acting as commercial capitalists? Is it possible to develop forms and stories of co-operative production and consumption that are beyond the money-form or cost savings? Is it possible to critique the idea of public rather than open education, and as a result to liberate skills, knowledges and practices against their marketization, and where they do not act to drive down wages through speed-up, or labour mobility, or the creation of proprietary skills that can be commodified? Is it possible to push-back against the use of open education to create a reserve army, or surplus population, of skilled workers as a disciplinary tool on wages?

The links between commercial educational providers and universities, educators and students as producers and consumers of educational services, data and products, demonstrate power and dependency. This complex interdependency is not reducible to fetishized ideas of money via cost-savings or emancipation based on learning for a life of capitalist work. It links to ideas of the reproduction of capital within limits or barriers, and the current condition inside-and-against education demonstrates how crises re-establish the limits and conditions existing in the system as a totality and in the circuits of productive, money and commodity capital. Moreover, we are witnessing the attempt by finance and commercial capital to synchronise production with their own circuits. This is an uncomfortable symbiosis, as those of us engaged in a higher education that is being restructured by the dictates of finance capital and a new market can attest.

At issue is whether we can help students to develop the analytical tools that enable them to understand the interdependencies of this world and thereby to critique power. Can we help them to change the world in the face of capital as the automatic subject, and against the dominance of our educational lives by finance and commercial capital?

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