On alienation and the curriculum

ONE. On alienation, time and exchange

In the Grundrisse, Marx argued that the possibility of human subjectivity, of an autonomy or agency for humans in their work and their leisure, was impossible inside the structuring social relations enforced by capitalism. For the worker:

the creative power of his labour establishes itself as the power of capital, as an alien power confronting him… Thus all the progress of civilisation, or in other words every increase in the powers of social production… in the productive powers of labour itself – such as results from science, inventions, divisions and combinations of labour, improved means of communication, creation of the world market, machinery etc., enriches not the worker, but rather capital; hence only magnifies again the power dominating over labour.. the objective power standing over labour. (pp. 307-8)

Through the process and outcome of her labour, the worker continually negates herself, but as importantly she internalises the means through which she is objectified, over and over again. The worker’s labour time, energy, skill and practice are continually appropriated, alongside the products of that labour, and through the disciplinary nature of the market her humanity and her relationship to others is objectified. The expropriation of her surplus value is compounded by the fact that this expropriation forms an apparently natural and deterministic process, which persistently re-produces the relations of wage labour. There is no alternative to this natural order.

Alienation through time and exchange, is revealed for Rikowski under the following conditions: that we labour in capitalist society; that the product is not owned by us; that work is imposed or forced upon us; and that competition rules. As a result, we are alienated in four senses: from the commodity; from the act – the conditions – of production; from our fellow workers; and from her/himself – from our species-beings. This reminds us of Fromm’s point that ‘Man has created a world of man made things… He has constructed a complicated social machine to administer the technical machine [i.e. industrial capitalism] he built. Yet this whole creation of his stands over and above him… He is owned by his own creation, and has lost ownership of himself’ (Fromm, 1955: 115).

In this argument, the continual circulation and exchange of commodities in a market or under market conditions realises the fact that each individual producer’s labour-power and product is for others and never for herself. Labour and its products can only ever be alienated, and this applies socially, so that in one circuit of capital production becomes a means to earn a wage or to subsist or be reproduced as a wage labourer. Production is not undertaken by free social individuals, but forms a totalising process of alienation.

From this process, there is no apparent escape, either in the present or the future, as all work is for-value and as all means of production either as labour-power or as commodities are enclosed through futures or debt. In fact time itself becomes central to the mechanics of control. As Marx notes “labour does not exist as a thing but as the capacity of a living being” (Grundrisse, p. 323); it alone creates value through invention, efficiency, productivity, measured by time. The control of present and future time is the control over labour-power, and vice-versa. This makes the sale and use of labour-power, and the sale and use of time, a deeply political act. Marx argued:

On the basis of communal production, the determination of time remains, of course, essential. The less time the society requires to produce wheat, cattle etc., the more time it wins for other production, material or mental. Just as in the case of an individual, the multiplicity of its development, its enjoyment and its activity depends on economization of time. Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself. Society likewise has to distribute its time in a purposeful way, in order to achieve a production adequate to its overall needs… Thus, economy of time, along with the planned distribution of labour time in the various branches of production, remains the first economic law on the basis of communal production. However, this is essentially different from a measurement of exchange values (labour or products) by labour time. (Grundrisse, pp. 172-3)

TWO. For co-operative education and post-capitalism

However, it is important to remember that for Marx, communism or the communist hypothesis would emerge from inside capitalism. It would not be a form of anti-capitalism, it would instead be post-capitalist. As Marx argued in his Critique of the Gotha Programme

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.

In his analysis of the Critique, Joss Winn has pointed towards the co-operative and cultural importance of defining a new form of society that might emerge from inside capitalist social relations, and that Marx argued that such a new form would be stamped throughout production, consumption and distribution. Moreover, labour becomes predicated on value that is reclaimed socially for use rather than for exchange. Co-operative or communal definitions of the mechanisms that support the use and distribution of commodities, including those for consumption, become central in creating common ownership and supporting direct rather than marketised production.

It is important to note the imperative to drive the development of post-capitalist forms from inside the existing system, and that education is a central element of that project. For Winn, autonomous co-operative practice, or the formation of co-operatives that could reinforce and reproduce worker-agency, is central to Marx’s work:

Marx is clear that the need for workers themselves to “revolutionize the present conditions of production and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid.” The meaning and purpose of co-operatives is, we might say, expedient or pedagogical. They are a step towards communism and away from the capitalist state, but should not be confused with a form of communism itself. They provide the conditions for communism to historically, materially and epistemologically emerge.

“But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not proteges either of the governments or of the bourgeois” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme)

This focus on co-operation connects to a critique of alienation and alienating educational or pedagogical practices. Our lived educational realities, which are underscored by the loss of time through debt and indenture, alongside the commodity fetishism attached to the research and pedagogic outputs of higher education, and the attack on labour rights and labour-power through outsourcing, monitoring and precarity, connect the pedagogic institution to alienated labor and the alienated production and consumption of goods. At issue is whether the University offers a space in which alienation can be refused or pushed back against, to take back social ownership of the curriculum and its means of production, and the pedagogic cycles or circuits through which an emancipatory curriculum might be renewed. As Wendling has argued:

The revolution has the power not only to restore the worker’s activity, but with it to restore the essence of the human species as such to produce freely, and to produce itself as a free producer in nonalienating practical life activity. Revolution thus restores objectification and what alienation has taken away as a result of objectification’s loss: spirit (i.e. personality). The effect will be a notion of human activity, or production, unlimited by the alienated constructions that make up the notions “labor” or “work.” Marx’s call to revolution thus extends beyond a critique of distribution to challenge the mode of production (p. 21)

THREE. The formal, performative curriculum

It is against this process of alienation that I reflected on two pedagogic spaces or events in the last week. The first was the initial meeting of 20 lecturers who are studying on the second module of a post-graduate certificate in higher education. The module analyses Assessment and Feedback in Higher Education, and takes a formal, institutionalised form, whereby the learning outcomes, assessment tasks and weekly schedule is given by the programme teaching team. As module leader I attempted to set the first session up discursively, so that we could discuss the content and structure of the curriculum, and analyse how the assessments interconnected and how they might be addressed in the specific context of the module.

However, I also tried to include some negotiated, co-produced elements based around eight, Fight Club-style rules.

The rules

#1 – The first rule of EDUC5003 is that, inside the agreed curriculum framework, everything is most things are negotiable.

#2 – The second rule of EDUC5003 is that we are expected to contribute based on courage, fidelity, restraint, generosity, tolerance and forgiveness.

#3 – The third rule of EDUC5003 is that I will be on-time for sessions and tutorials, and in giving participants feedback in good time so that it can be acted upon. Or I will explain why this is not the case in good time.

#4 – The fourth rule of EDUC5003 is that participants will be on-time for sessions and tutorials, and will submit assessments on-time so that they can be marked in good time. Or the participant will explain why this is not the case in good time.

#5 – The fifth rule of EDUC5003 is that learning set and self-directed study are critical components. I will expect report on what has been discussed, produced, achieved, or not.

#6 – The sixth rule of EDUC5003 is that participants are expected to produce and to contribute, as well as to consume the module.

#7 – The seventh rule of EDUC5003 is that teaching sessions will go on as long as they have to.

#8 – The eighth rule of EDUC5003 is that whether this is your first time discussing assessment in higher education or not, you have to assess and be assessed.

This was a deliberate hacking of the Third University’s rules of alternative teacher training, and it was designed to create a negotiable, co-operative and humane space. However, the creation of that space was predicated upon its insertion inside a formalised University, whose curricula are rarely defined in terms of co-production, and where those curricula and their assessment are structured and disciplined by external agencies (the Higher Education Academy, public and regulatory bodies, the Quality Assurance Agency) and external imperatives (accreditation, licenses to teach in higher education, validation of outcomes). Moreover the space is further disciplined through the internalisation of boundaries between teacher and student, assessor and assesse, and the cultural norms of an institution which demand that whilst attendance in formal teaching, contact sessions is expected, competing demands (running student labs or inductions or team meetings) take precedence.

In this way, constant and terrifying performativity moderates and nuances the labour of the academic participant, through the dictates of the market (the power of the student as consumer and her power-over the labour of the participant – if you can’t find someone to cover your lab session then what are you going to do?), and the dictates of management (the need to demonstrate capability in a range of administrative, teaching and research spaces and to balance which has most power-over your labour at any one time), and the dictates of monitoring mechanisms (have you written that essay, given feedback to your students in time, completed that research plan?). Collectively these mechanisms ensure that performativity is internalised inside the academic with a focus on individual entrepreneurial activity that focuses upon value rather than human values.

Thus, in terms of the first essay, which is a reconsideration of an assessment strategy on one module or programme, in order to analyse how feedback might be enhanced, the discussion has to focus on the exact meaning and definition of the essay question as it is handed down. How might it be analysed? What are the contextual and disciplinary boundaries for the work? What do the grade boundaries and assessment criteria look like. The meaning of the power-over us, exhibited through the assessment process, is socially-constructed so that we can attempt to liberate some freedom to act and to write. However, at each turn is a question over the validity of our interpretations, and whether sufficient trust exists in the space that we can collectively, as students and teacher, come up with a better approach to the essay, in process and outcome. Or does the validated module handbook become a disciplinary tool that further objectifies our work? Is there a possibility for overcoming the alienation that we feel where:

  • we have to submit a non-negotiable thing in a specific time;
  • the production of this thing impacts and interferes with our practice in other areas;
  • the production of this thing involves our judging the labour of ourselves or others as non-enhanced or non-optimised or non-legitimate against the realities of established pedagogic research and practice;
  • the production of this thing is an individuated rather than co-operative and social activity;
  • the production of this thing dominates the learning and teaching landscape, so that the space and time that teacher and student are together get recalibrated by it;
  • the production of this thing makes and reinforces a boundary between students and between student and teacher?

FOUR. A co-operative, pedagogic space

Yet it does not have to be this way. The second pedagogic space that I attended was the second meeting of this terms Social Science Imagination course at the Social Science Centre in Lincoln. The course is an on-going process of defining the relationships between co-operation and education, through repeated, facilitated negotiation and a willingness to voice and be heard, with a focus on “the importance of education, training and information to help think critically about running a co-operative and organisational forms beyond co-operatives.” Crucially, in terms of a co-operative pedagogy and an alternative social means of producing and consuming that pedagogy, the first session concluded “by starting to think about some of the themes that came out of the discussions with the aim of starting to develop concrete themes that we will examine for the rest of the course.”

I was not present at the first session, but what was clear from the reflections on it that were read out in the second session was the depth of common ownership of the course as a common treasury from which all could draw down. This does not mean that it is not challenging or uncomfortable, but more that elements of the rules of EDUC5003 noted above were present in a much more humane way. So: the negotiable elements of the curriculum (its organisation, form, content, modes of assessment, ways of sharing and so on) were agreed to be negotiable; the sessions will be based on contribution that is based on courage, fidelity, restraint, generosity, tolerance and forgiveness; that time was to be defined socially and around use, rather than the production of things that could be exchanged; that scholars might take the lead, and that it is hoped that all will be able to produce and to contribute, as well as to consume the course.

The reflections from participants on week 1 made me consider the following elements of any curriculum, and how any curriculum inside or outside an institution might be critiqued and reframed.

  • The soul is at work when we learn and when we teach. We place ourselves on the line as teachers and students and scholars. How might we overcome the alienation of our souls from our selves in the formalised classroom through a connection that was more than an exchange of educational goods? How do we define a pedagogy that is based on love and courage and care?
  • How might we redefine the ways in which we organise the curriculum, so that we re-engage with democracy and autonomy? What might this mean for the “rules” which govern our teaching and our study, or for power-over others and their work in our classrooms?
  • Words are critical tools. In the important words of one scholar at the Social Science Centre, they are “a sign of solidarity.” How do we use our definition of them to open up critical spaces and times in our pedagogy and in our curriculum, so that we can live an education that is co-operative or based on mutuality and contribution? How do we use them to push-back against performativity?
  • How do we define an educational space that is based on “our pedagogy” (as a second scholar put it)? How can we do this in a space that will be defined by “an increasing collectivity”, rather than one which is collective from the outset? Our shared, co-operative enterprise is not born whole, rather it emerges, pace Marx “economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” Might we, as educators, be able to create a safe space against which the internalised logic of entrepreneurial activity that is calibrated by exchange-value can be resisted, whilst a new co-operative form is defined? In addressing this question I am mindful of the point made by a third scholar who said: “What is our practice? Why am I asking these questions?” Our own position as student or teacher or scholar is critical in developing a response to the established educational position, which is in-turn framed by the market, management and a need to monitor.

FIVE. A curriculum against alienation

As a result of the conversation in the second class, I realised that a class based on co-operative practices and values might be able to build a shared conception of its own pedagogy through:

  • shared readings that ground and focus a discussion, and connect it to other content, ideas, skills, practices;
  • shared roles in/against the classroom (teacher, student, scholar, blogger, note-taker, tea-maker);
  • the communal, negotiated production of a curriculum jargon-buster;
  • the communal production of a common bibliography, as a commons that might circulate a new form of collectivity (perhaps akin to some of the elements of ds106);
  • an increasing inclusivity and democracy and autonomy of practice, so that scholars can give voice and be heard;
  • the idea of production and consumption of ideas generated through co-operative education as a solidarity economy, where all could contribute their expertise or energy or voice or encouragement;
  • the curriculum as a form of struggle to know or to become, so that the form and content is not prefigured, but is rather re-negotiated (so that one scholar asked why the rest of the course had to be 8 weeks. Why not 10?).

The definition of a co-operative education as a solidarity economy that is based on use-value and sharing, and that is against entrepreneurial and performative activity based on exchange-value is a critical process in confronting alienation. It is an overcoming of the fear of freedom that is inscribed and reinscribed through the objectified relations of the established curriculum. The at times painful, co-operative negotiation of the curriculum, its content, its (non-)assessment, and its organisation and forms, can be intensely uncomfortable, but it is also a process of legitimising our own claims to what we want to learn and who we want to be. It is a process of reclaiming our labour: for the social uses it has; for the mutuality of its products; for its reconnection of our soul to that of our fellows; and for its recognition and re-making of our alienated selves.

This is a lifelong pedagogical process of finding spaces to reclaim time and space against capital’s demand to be the automatic subject, and against its demand to dominate over our existences so that they are objectified. Whether this is possible inside the dominant forms and structures of higher education (the University) is questionable. Perhaps it is as a space both to reflect on the demands of performativity that affects academic labour inside the formal university, and to liberate the practices of knowing, that the Social Science Centre becomes important. Inside it, the description and liberation of a co-operative curriculum and the common ownership of the production, consumption and distribution of knowledge becomes possible in a way that might enable common ownership and organisation. Moreover, it offers a model against which alienation might usefully be resisted.


3 Responses to On alienation and the curriculum

  1. Pingback: What’s so special about @davecormier’s (or “our”) #rhizo14? | Reflecting Allowed

  2. Really enjoyed reading this – feel empathy for both student and teachers subjected to dominating forces of capitalism.
    Your work is in tune with my research – we have to keep trying to break free from these overwhelming power structures – there is no way we can give up the fight. Surrender is not an option.

  3. Pingback: on assessment and feedback: some notes on student-as-producer | DMU Centre for Pedagogic Research

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