On the domination of time and the liberation of a pedagogical alliance

ONE. Academics and socially necessary labour time.

In the University, abstract time dominates: the 50-minute hour; the four-week turnaround for feedback on work; being always-on through tethered technologies; the production of journal articles and books; the production and circulation of learning materials; the production and circulation of assessments and feedback; the exchange of ideas as commodities; the governance of production and circulation by intellectual property, patent and copyright law. A value-chain that is real and virtual, and governed by abstract time whilst its temporalities are regulated by the cultural space/time of student-as-consumer.

Abstract time dominates the life of the University as academic labour is really subsumed and recalibrated by capital. As the products of academic labour are re-constituted as commodities, academic labour is disciplined by impact, performance management and internalising league tables and satisfaction scores. The focus becomes less the concrete labour that produces a journal article or a podcast or a report, but the value that can be extracted from those products as they are exchanged through research funding or knowledge transfer or the fees that accompany student retention, and then realised through the accumulation of wealth.

Thus, we see the embodiment of the abstract labour of the academic in the new commodities that form the backbone of a new process of exchange and value creation/extraction. Time is central in this process. The concrete labour which is employed in the process of making a book or an on-line course does not create value, but the time it takes to write the book or course is alienated from the academic as s/he faces the demands of producing them in a competitive environment. This concrete academic labour may have a use for someone, as peer-review or piece of research or whatever, but as the University is subsumed under the dynamics of the market and as its products are required for exchange, that labour becomes an abstracted measure of value. This is an environment where value emerges based on the average time actually required across society, given generally available technological and organisational development, to produce the specific commodity. This average, this socially-necessary labour time, is abstract labour dominated by exchange in the market. Through exchange and competition, any differences in the concrete labour embodied in the book or the online course are averaged out.

As Postone (1993) writes in Time Labour and Social Domination:

As a category of the totality, socially necessary labor time expresses a quasi-objective social necessity with which the producers are confronted. It is the temporal dimension of the abstract domination that characterizes the structures of alienated social relations in capitalism. The social totality constituted by labor as an objective general mediation has a temporal character, wherein time becomes necessity (p. 191).

Thus, the University enmeshed in the market becomes a source of value and also seeks out value from new markets. The attrition on the average time it takes academic labour to produce, circulate or exchange commodities damages the sociability and solidarity of the academic’s wider communities with whom s/he is now in competition. Thus, the socially necessary labour time of academic production increasingly dominates the life of the academic and the student. This domination is made worse for the academic as the University is subsumed under value accumulation, because the academic means of production are necessarily revolutionised through technological and organisational change. This leads to speed-up, impact, always-on, performance management, in order that the productivity of the academic in one day or one month or one year can be measured against her peers through the socially-necessary labour time that determines what her productivity should be. In a competitive market, if that four-week turnaround time is three weeks elsewhere the academic labour rights will be threatened. This measure intensifies and dominates her work.

TWO. Academic subordination to abstract time.

As the University is marketised and academic labour is made productive of value, as Wendling notes (p. 196), abstract time permeates and mediates social relations. Quantifying the time taken to produce, circulate and exchange becomes a form of domination because humanity is subordinate to capitalist time. The relationship between teacher and student is subordinate to capitalist time. The relationship between author and peer-reviewer is subordinate to capitalist time. The relationship between administrator and teaching team is subordinate to capitalist time. The relationship between Vice-Chancellor and outsourcing partners is subordinate to capitalist time. The social relationships of the University are alienated through their subordination to capitalist time. Productivity; time not task; efficiency not humanity.

Here, the individual academic’s work is made social, and lives or dies through profit and loss. The space/time of academic life is recalibrated through exchange and profit and loss. The space/time of academic life is recalibrated through the production, circulation and consumption of the commodity form. The space/time of academic life is recalibrated through the specific historical dynamic of capitalism.

E.P. Thompson recognised this in terms of work-discipline and labour, and the ways in which the systemic domination of the measured time to produce, circulate and exchange products ‘influence[d] the inward apprehension of time of working people?’ (p. 57) As time became increasingly alienated, Thompson argued that our humanity also became alienated from us because our ‘task-orientation’ was subsumed under the clock. Here the production of human necessities and the costs of social reproduction became subordinate to the production of value, and clearly demarcated as something separate from capitalist work. Moreover, “work” and “life” become increasingly demarcated, so that “passing the time of day” becomes objectionable and a waste of the capitalist’s time. As Thompson argues, ‘In mature capitalist society all time must be consumed, marketed, put to use; it is offensive for the labour force merely to “pass the time”.’ (pp. 90-1)

THREE. Time is our everything.

Marx argued this at length in the Grundrisse, and began to develop an analysis of the interrelationships between time in the circuit of production and time in the circulation of commodities, and capital’s drive to control time by reducing socially necessary labour time through technology and organisational developments, by maximising the time available for surplus labour, and by reducing circulation time, in order to turn capital over more quickly.

in addition to the labour time realized in production, the circulation time of capital enters in as a moment of value creation — of productive labour time itself. While labour time appears as value-positing activity, this circulation time of capital appears as the time of devaluation. The difference shows itself simply in this: if the totality of the labour time commanded by capital is set at its maximum, say infinity, so that necessary labour time forms an infinitely small part and surplus labour time an infinitely large part of this [infinity], then this would be the maximum realization of capital, and this is the tendency towards which it strives. On the other side, if the circulation time of capital were = 0, if the various stages of its transformation proceeded as rapidly in reality as in the mind, then that would likewise be the maximum of the factor by which the production process could be repeated, i.e. the number of capital realization processes in a given period of time. The repetition of the production process would be restricted only by the amount of time which it lasts, the amount of time which elapses during the transformation of raw material into product. Circulation time is therefore not a positive value-creating element; if it were = to 0, then value-creation would be at its maximum. But if either surplus labour time or necessary labour time = 0, i.e. if necessary labour time absorbed all time, or if production could proceed altogether without labour, then neither value, nor capital, nor value-creation would exist. Circulation time therefore determines value only in so far as it appears as a natural barrier to the realization of labour time. It is therefore in fact a deduction from surplus labour time, i.e. an increase of necessary labour time. It is clear that necessary labour time has to be paid for, whether the circulation process proceeds slowly or quickly. E.g. in trades where specific workers are required, who can, however, only be employed for a part of the year because the products are, say, saleable only in a given season, [in those trades] the workers would have to be paid for the entire year, i.e. surplus labour time is decreased in exact proportion to the reduction in their possibilities of employment during a given period of time, but still they must be paid in one way or another. (For example in the form that their wages for 4 months suffice to maintain them for a year.) If capital could utilize them for 12 months, it would pay them no higher, and would have gained that much surplus labour. Circulation time thus appears as a barrier to the productivity of labour = an increase in necessary labour time = a decrease in surplus labour time = a decrease in surplus value = an obstruction, a barrier to the self-realization process [Selbstverwertungsprozess] of capital. Thus, while capital must on one side strive to tear down every spatial barrier to intercourse, i.e. to exchange, and conquer the whole earth for its market, it strives on the other side to annihilate this space with time, i.e. to reduce to a minimum the time spent in motion from one place to another. The more developed the capital, therefore, the more extensive the market over which it circulates, which forms the spatial orbit of its circulation, the more does it strive simultaneously for an even greater extension of the market and for greater annihilation of space by time… There appears here the universalizing tendency of capital, which distinguishes it from all previous stages of production

These contradictions, of the need for labour from which to extract a surplus and to add value to the production process, and the need to destroy the costs of labour, and to conquer geography and temporality for exchange, in order to open-up geography and temporality for the market, are also seen in Capital’s need for control. For Harvey, “time–space compression” to refer to the way the acceleration of economic activities leads to the destruction of spatial barriers and distances. In particular, Harvey argues that new technologies and organisational forms, like high frequency trading, containerisation and so on, underpin expansion. Here, either the time or the distance that separates production from exchange and profit is destroyed. Universities driving the expansion of global markets through outsourcing, internationalisation strategies, on-line delivery and so on, reinforce the subsumption of academic labour inside the disciplinary dictates of control. This is the time-space compression of the lifeworld of the academic and the student, rationalised through a technologised curriculum, and governed by value-for-money, the limits of time-bound pedagogies, and the costs of the production and consumption of academic commodities.

This focus on the control of space/time, in order to maximise the instantaneous accumulation of wealth connects to the cybernetic hypothesis. It was the search for control and minimising the risks to accumulation that led Tiqqun to argue:

A system, to the extent that it is a system, is never pure and perfect: there is a degradation of its energy to the extent that it undergoes exchanges, in the same way as information degrades as it is circulated around. This is what Clausius called entropy. Entropy, considered as a natural law, is the cybernetician’s Hell. It explains the decomposition of life, disequilibrium in economy, the dissolution of social bonds, decadence… Initially, speculatively, cybernetics claimed that it had thus opened up a common ground on which it would be possible to carry out the unification of the natural and human sciences (p. 14).

This entropy was a function of crisis inside a global system of value creation, extraction and accumulation that suffered from disequilibrium and uneven growth, as well as bubbles, booms and busts.

The crises of capitalism, as Marx saw them, always came from a de-articulation between the time of conquest and the time of reproduction. The function of cybernetics is to avoid crises by ensuring the coordination between Capital’s “front side” and “rear side.” Its development is an endogenous response to the problem posed to capitalism — how to develop without fatal disequilibrium arising (p. 21).

Thus, the technologies for control were defined “to maximize the volume of commodity flows by minimizing the events, obstacles, and accidents that would slow them down.” (p. 22) This is increasingly true of the University where flows of management information like psychometric test outcomes and workload data, performance metrics like retention and progression data, and enriched use of technologies to manage research and teaching, attempt to reduce all academic activities to flows that take place in real-time, through structures that are always-on, with feedback and inputs that are “just in time”. As a result the University, like any other capitalist business, attempts to abolish time. Technologies and techniques are designed to accelerate production, to remove labour-related barriers, and to destroy the friction of circulation time.

FOUR. Academic proletarianisation and free time.

One result of this is the dissonance for the academic between the cognitive skills, practices and knowledge that are high value, and the increasing routinisation of academic labour.  In particular, Marx argued in Capital, Volume One that machinery and techniques were used to dominate the labourer through proletarianisation.

The shortening of the hours of labour creates, to begin with, the subjective conditions for the condensation of labour, by enabling the workman to exert more strength in a given time. So soon as that shortening becomes compulsory, machinery becomes in the hands of capital the objective means, systematically employed for squeezing out more labour in a given time. This is effected in two ways: by increasing the speed of the machinery, and by giving the workman more machinery to tend. Improved construction of the machinery is necessary, partly because without it greater pressure cannot be put on the workman, and partly because the shortened hours of labour force the capitalist to exercise the strictest watch over the cost of production.

Where labour rights and the reduction in the hours of working are enforced this leads to increased capital intensity as the capitalist seeks to “convert every improvement in machinery into a more perfect means of exhausting the workman”. As Jehu argues this intensification and exhaustion form a process of domination of the body of the labourer and the time for the production of value. Value emerges from more time that is productive through the overcoming of entropy, and yet capital needs the destruction of time. Thus

in labor theory, reduction of hours of labor not only accelerates the development of the productive forces, with this development of the productive forces successive reductions of labor becomes becomes necessary: it “must soon lead to a state of things in which a reduction of the hours of labour will again be inevitable.”

Which is to say, reducing hours of labor first and foremost accelerates the demise of capitalism and wage slavery — freeing up disposable time for the great majority of society.

Therefore in any resistance to Capital’s domination, the recovery of time is pivotal. This is the case because value is measured through social time, which Capital tries to destroy through the co-option of science, co-operation and social commerce, in order to reduce necessary labour time and to attempt to liberate the creation of wealth from labour. Yet Capital measures all value by labour time and the extraction of surplus labour. This is the critical antagonism: “Capitalism is doomed, in sum, because it demands — at the same time — more labor and less labor.” (Tiqqun, p. 37) Thus, for Tiqqun

the new revolutionary subject would reappropriate its “creativity,” or its “imagination,” which had been confiscated by labor relations, and would make non-labor time into a new source of self and collective emancipation. (pp. 37-8)

Wendling also highlights that Marx saw the possibility for liberation in a reclaiming of wealth as ‘disposable time’ (Grundrisse, p. 708). Disposable time, rather than time that is owned by the capitalist and alienated from the worker, is the key to social emancipation. Around free-time, available for social reproduction, education and liberating the general intellect, forms a political battleground. Moreover, it becomes a battleground for social use and wealth, rather than the production for exchange and value. As Wendling notes:

in the communist future, which is not subject to the calculus of value, time must diminish in importance. When we extrapolate Marx’s visions of free time, therefore, we must not only envision the lengthening of the disposable hours the worker marks between short stints of productive labor. We must instead imagine a modern life freed from time, or at least modern life freed from time’s abstract and alienating dominations. (p. 199)

FIVE. Free time and the academic/student relationship

Giroux argues that

Civic engagement seems irrelevant and public values are rendered invisible, if not overtly disparaged, in light of the growing power of multinational corporations to privatize public space and time as it disconnects power from issues of equity, social justice and civic responsibility. Political exhaustion and impoverished intellectual visions are fed by the widely popular assumption that there are no alternatives to the present state of affairs.

This is as true for the two critical relationships of academic and student and academic and public. These relationships offer the possibility of intimacy, care, acceptance and liberation, but inside an increasingly commodified academic process they risk being destroyed by an abstraction. For many academics this is what the duality of student-as-consumer and student-as-producer collapses into: the reality of a concrete relationship, or the abstraction of a process of learning. This process is increasingly enclosed by time-bound teaching sessions or impact/satisfaction metrics and money, which is a form of structural domination over people. This then threatens the idea that epistemological liberation might be underpinned by dialogue and struggle that emerge from a concrete pedagogical alliance rather than an abstract process.

Such an alliance pushes back against the idea that academic/student/public might be locked inside a commodified, abstract, time-bound process that is based on the exchange of money, time, expertise, skills, feedback, peer-review, rather than being rooted in a humane relationship  that has a use and that is based on solidarity and sharing. As Giroux continues this is about liberating time from its structural domination over us:

The formative cultures, institutions and modes of critical agency necessary for a vibrant democracy do not exist in a culture in which knowledge is fragmented, power concentrated in few hands and time is reduced to a deprivation for large segments of the public – one consequence of which is the endless struggle by many Americans simply to try to survive at the level of everyday life. The colonizing of time, space and power suggests taking back people’s time in an era when the majority must work more than ever to make ends meet. There is no democracy in a country in which for most people time is a deprivation rather than a luxury. Time is crippled when it is trapped within an endless need to fight to merely survive in order to have enough to eat, have access to decent health care, day care and a social wage. The struggle over time is inextricably linked to a struggle over space, institutions, public spheres, the public good, power, the future and the nature of politics itself.

In Marx’s terms, this struggle demands the analysis of the position of the labour of the academic inside the market, as it is subsumed for the creation and accumulation of value, rather than for its public use/good. Such labour is useful but it is increasingly incorporated inside a social universe whose gravity is value. The increasing value of academic labour enabled through its marketisation and enabling its further exchange begins to dominate the processes of academic production. It dominates working practices, academic relationships, the technologies and intensity of academic labour on a social scale. Thus, as the academic labour of the teacher and the student is restructured by strategies for value creation and accumulation, it has to behave like any other form of labour. It has to satisfy a specific social need and be measured in terms of the totality of academic labour. It is measured and disciplined by socially necessary labour time.

This process of liberation of time for use rather than exchange is the solidarity that might be developed, not be fetishising academic labour, but from seeing it in terms of public and social labour, dominated by time-space compression. Marx noted in Capital, Volume One that:

From this moment on, the labour of the individual producer acquires a twofold social character. On the other hand, it can satisfy the manifold needs of the individual producer himself only in so far as every particular kind of useful private labour can be exchanged with, i.e. counts as the equal of, every other kind of useful private labour. Equality in the full sense between different kinds of labour can be arrived at only if we abstract from their real inequality, if we reduce them to the characteristic they have in common, that of being the expenditure of human labour-power, of human labour in the abstract. (p. 166)

This argument of commonality and of the solidarity that emerges from global exploitation points towards the potential that labour has to be socially useful and thereby liberated as a common treasury. This is about liberation from the domination of abstract time and the recovery of Thompson’s task-oriented life. This is about refusing, inPostone’s (1993, p. 202) terms, the conception of time that is “uniform, continuous, homogenous… [and] empty of events”. In this view, useful labour emerges through tasks and events that reproduce society against-and-beyond value production. They are a form of sociability that do not occur within time, but instead structure and determine that time (Postone, p. 201).

Potentially then, this is bell hooks’ self-actualisation: a capacity to live more fully and deeply. This is a capacity to integrate intellectual and emotional life through a society that is against value and for humane values. This is a humane capacity that is also the capability to liberate time for use and solidarity, rather than exchange. Here, academic life is not driven by a commodity-valuation based on the domination of abstract time. Academic life is governed by time that is useful for social reproduction. It is not about impact metrics or performance management or turnaround times or workload management. It is based on personal and social relations that dissolve the barriers between work and life, and which enable the teacher and the student to form a pedagogical alliance for the collective, socially-negotiated overcoming of capital’s power-over learning, teaching and the curriculum. This concrete alliance, revealed inside-and-against abstract time, is the beginning and end of our pedagogical fight for free time; a concrete struggle against abstract processes for value creation and accumulation; our concrete potential to be and to become.


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