On the context and use-value of academic labour

Michael Roberts has argued that the UK’s economy, and in particular the productive sectors of the economy, are struggling to recover from the global financial shock of 2008. Roberts argues that

What the comparative data show is that real GDP in the UK underwent the joint-second largest contraction of the G7 economies during the 2008-09 economic downturn.  Following the global financial shock, GDP in the UK fell by 7.2% between Q1 2008 and Q2 2009; this was the joint-second largest peak-to-trough fall among G7 economies.  This is bigger than the fall in GDP in the G7 economies on average and bigger than in the European Union.

I think this confirms my forecast back in 2005 that if world capitalism went into a slump that the UK would suffer more than most because it was, more than any other, a rentier economy, i.e. its prosperity depended on its importance as a global financial centre where it could extract rent, interest and dividends out of the surplus value created by other economies.  In the global financial crash, such economies were likely to take a bigger hit that those with a more productive base.

In the recovery period, the UK’s growth in the period following the recession has been slower than in other major economies.  Average growth in the UK has also been slightly lower than that of the OECD total. 

If we combine the change in employment with the change in real wages, it reveals just where the pain for working people has been felt.

On this measure, British workers have suffered the most in the last five years, with a cumulative fall of 7.3% points, mainly from a decline in wages, but also from a fall in employment.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) calculates that a mid-range household’s income between 2013 and 2014 was 6% below its pre-crisis peak. This was felt equally across high and low income groups when the cost of living was taken into account… The IFS said that inflation between 2008 and 2013 was 20%, while energy prices rose by 60% and food prices were up by 30% over the same period. “Looking forward, there is little reason to expect a strong recovery in living standards over the next few years….Given this, it seems highly unlikely that living standards will recover their pre-crisis levels by 2015 to 2016.”

The capitalist mode of production is for profit.  Getting profitability back up in a major slump requires cutting costs (laying off labour, reducing wages and stopping new investment).  American capitalists have resorted to straight reductions in the labour force rather than the backdoor trick of reducing real wages, as in the UK.  Either way, working people pay for correcting the failure of capitalist production. The ‘British solution’, however, will also delay the recovery and the push its capitalist sector into a lower medium-term growth rate.  That’s because the growth in productivity (output per employee) will stop if the labour force is not sacked and there is no new investment in technology to raise output per person.

The ramifications of this attrition on productivity and real wages, with a concomitant focus on organisational development and technology-fuelled restructuring, are being felt through UK higher education, with a series of strikes that reflect a range of labour rights issues inside universities, including: high-rates of pay for vice-chancellors, who are behaving more like CEOs of global businesses; outsourcing of services and labour functions; the precarious employment of non-tenured staff; the docking of pay based on partial working to contract, for two hour strikes; the denial of labour rights (sick- and maternity pay, paid holidays) to increasing numbers of staff employed on zero-hour and sub-living wage contracts; and so on. The arguments around these issues are also reflected in an increasing narrative of the customer, or the student-as-customer, inside the University. Moreover, the critical terrain on which this is being played out is the cost-base for the institution and its financial sustainability. Thus, the markers for this are: the fee-cap on students, through which the value of a degree is presently monetised at £9,000 per annum (although with interest the future costs of indenture leverage the long-term reproduction of credit and wage labour/exploitation); the global drive to control the price at which the labour-power of academics can be purchased through precarious contracts, adjunct labour and attrition on staffing levels and costs; purchasing high value labour from key academics/professors who can contribute to an institution’s global brand through research and development; the drive upwards of management costs, in order to reflect perceptions that high-performers must be retained; and so on.

What is missing in this debate about the fee-cap, or student-as-consumer/customer, and the pay of vice-chancellors and institutional managers is a meaningful discussion about the value of academic labour. What is its use-value for society, as opposed to its exchange-value or its price as a commodity (as academic labour-power). It is labour-power that generates value, surplus value and hence capital. In the Grundrisse (p. 167), Marx argued that labour power is: “the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description.” Labour differs depending upon whether it produces use-value (or forms of material wealth) or exchange-value (which is the source of profit and profitability). The labour that produces use-values is concrete, qualitative labour, whereas exchange-value emerges from quantitatively measurable abstract labour. Through exchange, the products of labour are abstracted or alienated, rather than being objectified as use-value. Under the organisation of capitalist production and the coercive laws of competition that work in tandem with the need to turn a profit, exchange and the market dominates over society. The need to abstract labour and to drive exchange for value-extraction underpin organisational development and technological innovation (capital intensity), and the need to drive down labour costs (as means of production), and this catalyses the real subsumption of labour. Increasingly academics are seeing their own labour abstracted for exchange and subsumed under the laws of competition.

As Wendling notes (p. 52), “the social tyranny of exchange-value is so comprehensive that it determines how things are made and even what is made… Capitalism does not care if it produces quantities for use; it cares about producing profit.” It is against this tyranny that the value of academic labour, in the costs of its labour-power, the research/teaching products that it creates, and the relationships that it enables and maintains, need to be discussed and re-evaluated. What is currently being enacted through global labour arbitrage, outsourcing and precarious employment, is the alienation of academic labour through the enclosure and commodification of its products and relationships. This focus on production for exchange is then furthered through the cultural imperatives of student-as-consumer, league tables, impact-measures, knowledge exchange and so on.

What might be needed, in order to push back is a re-focusing on the liberation of academic labour-power, knowledge, skills and practices for use-value that can be used inside and across society. This is the liberation of real wealth outside of Capital’s system of value, and the reclamation of use-value beyond its instrumental use in the market and for consumption. As Marx notes (Capital Volume 1, pp. 300-01)

The value of labour-power and the value which that labour-power valorises… in the labour-process are two entirely different magnitudes; and this difference was what the capitalist had in-mind when he was purchasing labour-power… What was really decisive for him was the specific use-value which this commodity possesses of being a source not only of value, but of more value than it has itself. This is the specific service the capitalist expects from labour-power, and in this transaction he acts in accordance with the eternal laws of commodity-exchange. In fact, the seller of labour-power, like the seller of any other commodity, realises… its exchange-value, and alienates… its use-value.

This set of contradictions and tensions, between use and exchange inside the production and movement of value, and the role of labour as commodity needs to be addressed in the context of the University. What is the work that academics do actually worth? How does it add value and for whom, and how might its social potential be liberated for the use-value of the working class? This means that academics need to address the mechanisms through which the University is mechanised and outsourced, in order that only those with leverage skills are valued. As Marx notes:

along with the tool, the skill of the worker in handling it passes over to the machine. The capabilities of the tool are emancipated from the restraints inseparable from human labour-power. This destroys the technical foundation on which the division of labour in manufacture was based. Hence, in place of the hierarchy of specialized workers that characterizes manufacture, there appears, in the automatic factory, a tendency to equalize and reduce to an identical level every kind of work that has to be done by the minders of the machines; in place of the artificially produced distinctions between specialized workers, it is natural differences of age and sex that predominate… In so far as the division of labour reappears in the factory, it takes the form primarily of a distribution of workers among the specialized machines. (Capital Volume 1, p. 545)

The motion of the whole factory proceeds not from the worker but from the machinery [and therefore] the working personnel can continually be replaced without any interruption to the labour process. (Capital Volume 1, p. 546)

As the University is fully restructured in response to competition and marketization, we witness increasingly exploitative and mechanical conditions of labour. This process delivers performativity and entrepreneurial activity that are themselves internalisations of the need to innovate and exchange, and these processes enable the capitalist, in the form of credit rating agency or vice-chancellor or bond-holder or whatever, to purchase academic labour-power for profit. Increasingly, University management acting as agents for Capital confront academic labour, and: catalyse the internalisation and reproduction of forms of performance management; drive down labour costs through transnational competition; or drive capital intensity and productivity. Pace Marx (Capital Volume 1, p. 723), in spite of these tensions the academic labourer belongs to Capital before he has sold himself to the capitalist.

An added tension or factor in this process is the increasing internationalisation of UK universities. This is important given the structural weakness of the UK economy. The monetisation of UK debt through Government purchases of its own bonds, replicated by the US, Japan and the European Central Bank, can only lead to default. This is particularly the case given the collapse of the post-war Keynesian consensus in the 1970s, the removal of the metallic base to global currencies (in 1971 Nixon stated that the United States would no longer redeem currency for gold), and the deregulation of the spaces in which transnational capital operates. The logic of a global system based on the deregulated transnational finance capital is the endless reproduction of credit to compensate for the lack of demand caused by falling wages in the global North, and huge numbers of new workers drawn from subsistence and part-subsistence into dependency on capitalist wage labour in the global South. This process is witnessed in university engagements in the bond markets and the leveraged growth of student debt, alongside the restructuring of the University as the educational pivot for an association of capitals.

Critically then for universities and for academics contesting the value of their labour is the threat of the structural problems in the UK economy outlined by Roberts, and the wider geopolitical problems facing the failing US petro-dollar. As my friend and colleague George Lambie notes:

The short-term growth in shale oil, and the conquests of Iraq and Libya, plus the seizure of their gold, gave a temporary reprieve for a global economy influenced by the USA. However, the role of Iran alongside the new configuration of power forming around Russian State oil giants, Gazprom and Rozneft, China’s vast gold holdings, and the realisation that significant parts of the global economy wish to trade outside the orbit of the dollar, places stress on the international system inside which universities are being recalibrated.

It is against a pressurised or collapsing dollar system that the value of academic labour and the liberation of its products as socialised use-values needs to be discussed.


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