On the co-operative university and the general intellect

The question, pace David Bollier, is whether academics and students as scholars can learn to see their labour in common, in order to think and to act co-operatively? From our re-reading of the Grundrisse, we are able to raise our concerns over the production and ownership of academic labour. We are able to explore how the idea of cognitive capital might underpin the concept of living knowledge, or the general intellect. Here Marx (p. 694) argued that the dynamics of capitalism meant

the accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital [machinery].

Through innovation and competition, the technical and skilled work of the socialised worker, operating in factories or corporations or schools, is subsumed inside machinery. Therefore, the ‘general intellect’ of society is absorbed into capitalised technologies and techniques, in order to reduce labour costs and increase productivity. As a result, ‘the human being comes to relate more as a watchman and regulator to the production process itself’ (Marx, p. 705).

Inside the University, how do we come to understand the mechanisms through which the general intellect is co-opted into technical and scientific processes that enable capitalist work and value production? Is it possible, inside the University, to reclaim them? This focus on the liberation of the general intellect provides a possible counterpoint to the fetishised myth of technology as the creator of value in the allegedly ‘immaterial’ production and accumulation of cognitive capital. As the University of Utopia argued:

As intellectual workers we refuse the fetishised concept of the knowledge society and engage in teaching, learning and research only in so far as we can re-appropriate the knowledge that has been stolen from the workers that have produced this way of knowing (i.e. Abundance). In the society of abundance the university as an institutional form is dissolved, and becomes a social form or knowledge at the level of society (i.e. The General Intellect). It is only on this basis that we can knowingly address the global emergencies with which we are all confronted.

What is needed is a focus on the possibilities that emerge from co-operative labour. Elsewhere, in speaking about the University as a worker co-operative, Joss Winn has asserted that

the university is already a means of production which capital employs together with academic labour to re-produce labour in the form of students, and value in the commodity form of knowledge. A worker owned co-operative university would therefore control the means of knowledge production and potentially produce a new form of knowledge.

Control of the means of production as a way to control the means of knowledge production and as a way of liberating the knowledge, skills and practices of the University for its broader, social use value. This means reframing an education that is driven by consumption, indenture and both social and personal alienation, so that it is based less on our outsourcing of services to private providers or the corporate university, and more on the productive relationships between teacher and student. Moreover these relationships might be reframed co-operatively as scholarship. Do we have the courage to work in common and co-operatively to reclaim the usefulness of our work and our time?

From such a reframing emerges a focus on alternative educational practices that develop socialised knowledge, or ‘mass intellectuality’, a direct, social force of production. As the University of Utopia argued

Mass intellectuality is based on our common ability to do, based on our needs and capacities and what needs to be done. What needs to be done raises doing from the level of the individual to the level of society.

This matters, of course, because as Andrew McGettigan notes discussing financialisation and higher education (ht Joss Winn):

unless academics rouse themselves and contest the general democratic deficit from within their own institutions and unless we have more journalists taking up these themes locally and nationally, then very little can be done. We are on the cusp of something more profound than is indicated by debates around the headline fee level; institutions and sector could make moves that will be difficult, if not impossible, to undo, whether it is negotiated independence for the elite or shedding charitable status the better to access private finance.

Joss Winn suggests that academics and students, acting as scholars, have three possible responses.

Conversion: Constitute the university on co-operative values and principles. Read Dan Cook’s report: ‘Realising the co-operative university‘.

Dissolution: Radicalise the university from the inside, starting with the relationship between academics and students. Read about Student as Producer.

Creation: Build experiments in higher education outside the financialised sector. Read about the Social Science Centre.

I questioned a while back ‘whether academics can develop alternative methods of liberating knowing and knowledge and organisation, and which are beyond the space-time of debt and privatisation.’ The three responses noted above are conditioned by the structural domination of wage labour, and the reality that the co-operative space has to exist inside the totalising relations of production of capitalist society. However, they offer alternative possibilities for liberating science and technology across society, and to enable what Arviddson calls the ‘free availability of General Intellect in the social environment [which] means that capital cannot exercise a monopoly over this productive resource. It can be employed for autonomous or even subversive purposes.’ The three responses above might act as critical sites in this struggle to recuperate the general intellect including: reclaiming public, open, virtual and face-to-face environments that enable globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge, for example through copyfarleft and an education commons rooted in critical pedagogy; and the use of technologies to ground, critique and disseminate the community-building of alternative educational settings like student occupations, co-operative centres or social science centres.

These struggles for mass intellectuality are an attempt to build solidarity and sharing related to the social and co-operative use of the knowledge, skills and practices that we create as labour. This is deliberately opposed to their commodification, exchange and accumulation by a transnational elite. Thus, liberating science and technology from inside-and-against capital’s competitive dynamics is central to moving beyond exploitation. Inside critical and co-operative (rather than co-opted) educational contexts, the processes of learning and teaching offer the chance to critique the purposes for which the general intellect is commodified rather than made public. They offer the opportunity to reclaim and liberate the general intellect for co-operative use. The question, pace David Bollier, is whether academics and students as scholars can learn to see their labour in common, in order to think and to act co-operatively?

3 Responses to On the co-operative university and the general intellect

  1. Pingback: notes on money and the democratic deficit and higher education | Richard Hall's Space

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