on the proletarianisation of the University

The subsumption of academic life, through competition and financialisation, and driven by the disciplinary control of data and debt, enforces widening inequalities inside higher education (HE). Moreover, subsumption works to modify the processes of accumulation, which enable academic labour, in the form of student labour-power or staff teaching or shared research, to be proletarianised. The process of proletarianisation is global, and is influenced both by national educational policy like indentured study and using HE as an export strategy, and internationally through the role of trade partnerships and innovations like MOOCs. The end result is an increase in the number of academic labourers, in the form of postgraduates who teach, adjuncts, casual teachers, associate/full professors, and crucially students, who lack control over the means of production. In each of these cases individual labourers survive by selling their labour-power in the market.

This is the relationship between labour-power and subsumption/accumulation across areas of work that were previously regarded as beyond the market. What is revealed in this process is the dispossession of individual and collective autonomy and time. The autonomy that is dispossessed relates to what can be produced and the process of production. The time that is dispossessed is both the present and the future that is foreclosed as it is alienated. This alienated labour-power is scrubbed clean of its usefulness beyond that dictated in the market by metrics, impact and satisfaction. What emerges is the substitution of that alienated labour-power for that which was previously locally-bargained, with control over the means of production residing transnationally rather than at a local level.

For Marx and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto, this process of proletarianisation accompanied the globalisation of the circuits of production. This is reinforced for transnational HE through its explicit connection into the circuits of value production and accumulation, inside mechanisms like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Marx writes in the Communist Manifesto:

In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed — a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.

Thus, we witness reports of adjunct professors who “don’t even earn the federal minimum wage”; and we witness postgraduate researcher-led committees that “have been pushing the[ir] University to honour the essential role that teaching assistants play in University life in the form of fair pay and treatment.”; and we witness self-imposed overwork as a form of self-harm; and we witness a documenting of the processes and pains of casualisation. As students and adjuncts are forced to sell themselves piecemeal they are forced to contend and compete globally. These proletarianised labourers are forced to compete as technological, entrepreneurial, and impactful.

For Michael Richmond, one outcome of this process is that people are forced to become self-exploiting entrepreneurs, beguiled by the promise of autonomy and ever-increasing standards of living, whilst in reality working longer and harder for lower rewards.

The point here is that you’re not just supposed to be paid nothing and get treated like garbage, you have to act like this is all part of your career plan. The demand here is a performative one. I had to “show him that I wanted it” – a demand that is largely unquantifiable but nevertheless psychically demoralising, designed perhaps to differentiate the boss from their staff affectively, even morally, in an industry of surprising equality of immiseration between the ostensible capitalist and the worker.

The reality is that, besides the social status and the myth of the autonomous entrepreneur, the role is a miserable one. They put in longer hours than anyone, often paying themselves poverty wages at first and taking no money out of the business (in fact, usually the opposite) as it often isn’t profitable anyway.

With such a configuration of production, the worker is sometimes left without a traditional boss to hate – leaving either an abstract concept of “the system” or, more likely, themselves, as the culprit. Meanwhile the entrepreneur, no less guided by the coercive laws of competition as any 19th century factory owner or Google CEO, no longer lives the capitalist’s dream of not having to work as instead they play several roles at once, often further hampered by actually “believing” or being emotionally invested in what they’re doing.

[W]orkers’ and managers’ immiseration coincide, where the exploited and the self-exploited service richer or credit-worthy consumers while the rentier class hoovers up most of the dosh through property and financial gatekeeping. The self-exploiting entrepreneur, beguiled by the promise of creative control and autonomy, more often than not ends up merely acting as a node for the flow of capitalist social relations.

Michael Roberts has argued cogently how the technologised, entrepreneurial individual is an outcome of the pressures of competition as they emerge from the market correction and deleveraging in the global economy. He has also argued that the crisis is one of profitability and investment, and is affecting both compensation for labour and hours worked. The end-product is that people are being forced into precarious, self-employment (as self-exploiting entrepreneurs) and are working longer hours for lower pay, whilst inequality widens on a global terrain. This is an echo of Marx and Engel’s argument in the Communist Manifesto that competition and the expansion of value, driven by space-time compression across an international market, would proletarianise increasing amounts of work.

Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases. Nay more, in proportion as the use of machinery and division of labour increases, in the same proportion the burden of toil also increases, whether by prolongation of the working hours, by the increase of the work exacted in a given time or by increased speed of machinery, etc.

Across globalised HE, we witness zero-hours contracts, outsourcing, the need for collective action like the 3cosas, and so on. In a competitive, transnational educational market, academic labour rights will be threatened by the equalising pressures of transnational competition and productivity, which includes new forms of competition from private providers. These might be rival organisations with degree-awarding powers, partnerships of accrediting organisations operating through MOOCs, or hedge funds providing venture capital for technologically-driven innovations. Whilst these innovations need to be analysed in terms of the tensions that emerge between the forces of technological production and individual labour time that can be exploited or alienated, they are also driven by a need to overcome the historic tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

This acceptance of immiseration is one outcome of recalibrating higher education inside a national export strategy. In his higher education position paper, Robbins Rebooted, Liam Byrne MP, argued that:

If we want a model of more inclusive growth, where more people earn more – at the top of the hourglass, then we need a higher education system that helps to build better jobs and equips people with the skills for high skilled, high value-added, non-routine jobs.

It reminded me of something blunter that Paul Hofheinz, President of the Lisbon Council said to me…: “if we want to live better than others, then we will have to be better than others.”

So our goal is bold and simple: to build a bigger knowledge economy

This is an acceptance that for vast swathes of the global population there is only immiseration and low-skilled, low value-added, routine jobs in a transnational market. This is about competition and the incorporation of HE inside that logic, so that competition is driven by precarity and casualisation and competition between entrepreneurs.

Here Will Davies’ recent work on neoliberalism is useful enables us to analyse capitalist work inside academia in light of (self-exploiting) entrepreneurial activity that is:

  • enacted through new combinations of technologies and practices to inject novelty into the circuits of capitalism;
  • operating through counter-acting norms that can never be stabilised;
  • rooted in a new productive environment that accommodates power: first in expanding the time-scale for returns; second in expanding the arena for competition; and
  • grounded in vision and desire.

The avaricious desire is therefore to recalibrate the whole of existence as an entrepreneurial life, in order to widen the orbit of productive labour. In part, this is done through the individuated, technologised Self. It is also achieved through the entrepreneurial recalibration of the collective labourer. Critically, this means that universities as businesses are restructured for the production of surplus value, through organisational development, knowledge transfer, impact, technological innovation and so on. As Marx argued in Chapter 16 of Capital:

Capitalist production is not merely the production of commodities, it is essentially the production of surplus value. The labourer produces, not for themself, but for capital. It no longer suffices, therefore, that they should simply produce. They must produce surplus-value.

That labourer alone is productive, who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, and thus works for the self-expansion of capital. If we may take an example from outside the sphere of production of material objects, a schoolteacher is a productive labourer, when, in addition to belabouring the heads of their scholars, they work like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out their capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory, does not alter the relation. Hence the notion of a productive labourer implies not merely a relation between work and useful effect, between labourer and product of labour, but also a specific, social relation of production, a relation that has sprung up historically and stamps the labourer as the direct means of creating surplus-value. To be a productive labourer is, therefore, not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.

To re-quote Michael Richmond:

The self-exploiting entrepreneur, beguiled by the promise of creative control and autonomy, more often than not ends up merely acting as a node for the flow of capitalist social relations.

A critical issue for academics and students as labourers emerges from the process of their working lives as they are rooted in the creation of circulation of services that are compensated through “a share of the surplus product, of the capitalist’s revenue” (Marx, Grundrisse). Thus, those who labour to provide a service, alongside those who labour to produce surplus value, are faced by capital’s drive to expand and accumulate value, and to reduce costs in the face of maximising profit. For Marx, profit was key in disciplining and exploiting (productive) labour and in driving down labour costs. Thus, in speaking about the relationship between public infrastructure, [technological innovation], the role of the State and the drive for private profit, Marx argued the following.

The separation of public works from the state, and their migration into the domain of the works undertaken by capital itself, indicates the degree to which the real community has constituted itself in the form of capital. A country, e.g. the United States, may feel the need for [technological innovation] in connection with production; nevertheless the direct advantage arising from them for production may be too small for the investment to appear as anything but sunk capital. Then capital shifts the burden on to the shoulders of the state; or, where the state traditionally still takes up a position superior to capital, it still possesses the authority and the will to force the society of capitalists to put a part of their revenue, not of their capital, into such generally useful works, which appear at the same time as general conditions of production, and hence not as particular conditions for one capitalist or another – and, so long as capital does not adopt the form of the joint-stock company, it always looks out only for its particular conditions of realisation, and shifts the communal conditions off on to the whole country as national requirements. Capital undertakes only advantageous undertakings, advantageous in its sense. … Capital must be able to sell the [technological innovation] in such a way that both the necessary and the surplus labour are realised, or in such a way that it obtains out of the general fund of profits – of surplus values – a sufficiently large share to make it the same as if it had created surplus value. The highest development of capital exists when the general conditions of the process of social production are not paid out of deductions from the social revenue, the states taxes – where revenue and not capital appears as the labour fund, and where the worker, although he is a free wage worker like any other, nevertheless stands economically in a different relation – but rather out of capital as capital. This shows the degree to which capital has subjugated all conditions of social production to itself [Marx, Grundrisse)

Critically, proletarianisation is amplified not only by the privatisation of the conditions for social reproduction but also by the demand for labour to be productive (i.e. to expand capital). As soon as it becomes unproductive, then it will not be employed or it will be outsourced. Investment in new physical and virtual spaces through which surpluses can be invested and returns taken out is pivotal in the expansion of capitalism. Thus, the idea of traditional HE needs to be addressed against the production and circulation of value, and in response to potential blockages that might induce a crisis by constricting capital flows. Innovations like MOOCs might fruitfully be analysed against these potential constrictions or barriers to the social reproduction of capital, which maintain an increase in the rate of profit and leverage further investment.

Thus, Marx and Engels argue in the Communist Manifesto, emerges a:

class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce.

The growth of technological and entrepreneurial activity inside and against the University forms a way for capital to leverage the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested. Educational innovation also enables a redistribution of surplus value from businesses that produce commodities or services like universities to those that market them or that lend money to make academic labour productive. Therefore, it becomes important to analyse the role of innovation in revolutionising the means of production and in proletarianising the University. One signal that this is occurring is Pearson’s focus on “doubling the amount of really high value learning [at no extra total cost]” through: being more global; being more mobile; thinking holistically; being absolutely obsessed with learning outcomes. Pearson argue:

building an ever-wider range of bigger and more complex standalone products and services to participating in more open, interoperable educational ‘ecosystems’, centered around learners

Responses to this entail a critique of academic labour inside the University and across the terrain of HE that also includes open environments and Commons. Such responses might usefully focus on the following.

ONE. Critiques of the value of academic labour, as it is generated both by tenured/non-tenured staff and through the labour of the student. This will enable the latter to become more than the carrier of technologised, entrepreneurial value, born out of the marriage of debt and data. Recalibrating the work of academics (and sub-strata of academics, like adjuncts, tenured/untenured and so on) and students as labourers, and therefore as the working class governed by the wage relation (even where it is debt-driven), is critical in refusing proletarianisation. This has implications for the control of time and the autonomy of capitalist work. Academics and students may feel that they have more autonomy, but the wage-relation and the real subsumption of work affects that reality. As Marx notes in Wage Labour and Capital

the putting of labor-power into action — i.e., the work — is the active expression of the laborer’s own life. And this life activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. His life-activity, therefore, is but a means of securing his own existence. He works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another. The product of his activity, therefore, is not the aim of his activity.

But the worker, whose only source of income is the sale of his labor-power, cannot leave the whole class of buyers, i.e., the capitalist class , unless he gives up his own existence. He does not belong to this or that capitalist, but to the capitalist class ; and it is for him to find his man — i.e., to find a buyer in this capitalist class.

Even the entrepreneur as commodity-producer is obliged to sell her products in competition. Critically, the means of production inside HE, in terms of the content, the infrastructures, the data and learning analytics, the applications and so on, are not owned by the entrepreneur unless she becomes a member of the capitalist class. Generally, the technologised, entrepreneurial labourer is forced to sell her labour-power and her products as commodities for a wage.

TWO. Critique of the mechanisms through which debt/indenture and the need to compete on a global terrain for a wage underpin proletarianisation. This means that transantional businesses governed by partnerships accords like the TTIP have power over labour and can restructure on a global basis, underpinning labour arbitrage.

THREE. The ways in which the expansion of the circuits of value-production and accumulation dominate the why of education, and underpin increasing academic alienation as autonomy over the mode and means of production are lost.

A critical issue is whether there are moments of solidarity across the academic labourer as a collective worker (student, worker, tenured/non-tenured academic and so on), in order to support collective action that looks towards the abolition of alienation through the abolition of capitalist work. Otherwise, as Marx notes in Wage Labour and Capital, academic labour will be increasingly subject to regulation through the exhausting logic of competition.

Now, the same general laws which regulate the price of commodities in general, naturally regulate wages , or the price of labor-power. Wages will now rise, now fall, according to the relation of supply and demand, according as competition shapes itself between the buyers of labor-power, the capitalists, and the sellers of labor-power, the workers. The fluctuations of wages correspond to the fluctuation in the price of commodities in general. But within the limits of these fluctuations the price of labor-power will be determined by the cost of production, by the labor-time necessary for production of this commodity: labor-power.

What, then, is the cost of production of labor-power?

It is the cost required for the maintenance of the laborer as a laborer, and for his education and training as a laborer.

The squeeze on remuneration and the potential for solidarity amongst collective labour has been argued by the IT Consultancy Gartner:

Digitization is reducing labor content of services and products in an unprecedented way, thus fundamentally changing the way remuneration is allocated across labor and capital…. Mature economies will suffer most as they don’t have the population growth to increase autonomous demand nor powerful enough labor unions or political parties to (re-)allocate gains in what continues to be a global economy.

Following on from Will Davies’ work, we might ask whether and how solidarity can be sought that refuses or pushes-back against proletarianisation in and through the University? In particular, the following questions feel important.

  • How might the notion of political decision-making or action be harnessed in ways that broaden the horizon of political possibility inside-and-beyond the University?
  • Does such deliberation lead to stagnation or reconfiguration? Do planning, debt and data subsume the future to incentivised utility-maximisation?
  • How is it possible for individual agency and collective institutions to be criticized and re-imagined simultaneously, in order to overcome neoliberal narratives?

Thus, academics might ask whether, in a globalised life that is restructured around the metrics of efficiency, value, enterprise, and where social life is restructured for-profit, are there alternative, qualitative descriptions of life that might enable alternatives to be developed? One possibility lies in the idea of the Commons and the praxis that emerges from commoning, which is a global idea of socialised solidarity. Elsewhere I have argued for a critique rooted in mass intellectuality and open co-operativism, as a mechanism for framing a useful higher education that recognises its own alienation through

  • democratic governance and regulation of transnational worker co-operatives
  • connections to the circuits of p2p production and distribution
  • pedagogic moments that reflect the open, democratic, autonomous, social focus of co-operatives
  • a framework for the common ownership of products, assets and commodities
  • a reclamation of public environments for the globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge (e.g. copyfarleft)
  • connecting a global set of educational commons rooted in critical pedagogy
  • conversion, dissolution or creation of co-operatives that are transitional and pedagogic

Refusing the proletarianisation of the University hinges on the creation of a ‘direct form of communal manifestations of life carried out in association with others – [that] are therefore an expression and confirmation of that social life’ (Marx on Private Property and Communism). This might be realised in spaces that incorporate increasingly alienated social forces in the global North, as well as those largely ignored in the global South. This requires that we have a more mature discussion of the possibilities for pedagogic production as a social activity that are for-society rather than for-profit.

In part this recognises that HE is folded into the circuits of capitalism precisely because no space is more important for the generation and accumulation of the knowledge, practices and skills produced co-operatively at the level of society, as ‘mass intellectuality’. Is it possible that a critical political economy of higher education as it is proletarianised might offer a way of developing an emancipatory critical pedagogy on a global scale? Might such a political economy enable the knowledge, practices and skills produced socially and co-operatively inside-and-beyond HE to underpin new social relations of production as a pedagogic project beyond the market?

2 Responses to on the proletarianisation of the University

  1. Pingback: Notes on pedagogy, free time and the abolition of wage labour | Richard Hall's Space

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