I’ve been reminded this week, by Joss Winn’s excellent article “Writing about academic labour” that
There is an understandable tendency among critics of the current crisis in higher education to want to restore the university to what it once was, to defend the university from changing into something else, to resist the real subsumption of academic labour under capital. I think this misunderstands the university as a means of production and its historical role.
Joss analyses how the University is increasingly folded inside the ebb-and-flow of capitalism as a process of circulation in the name of value. The flow of circuits of production, commodity and money are structuring and re-structuring what it means to labour as an academic or as a student (wages for students, anyone?). In this way academic labour needs to be critiqued through labour theory, not in order to recuperate a golden age of scholarship and learning, but to re-appropriate and potentially liberate academics and students as organic intellectuals able to help society engage with critical, global problems. As Joss argues, central to this process is an understanding of academic work, by both academics and students, from the standpoint of labour.
When critically approaching the university as a means of production for the valorisation of capital, an emancipatory project must first focus on re-appropriating the means of knowledge production through efforts to control the substance of value: the labour process. This, I think, requires new models of democratic higher education organised directly through the co-operation of academic and student labour; models of practice which aim to re-appropriate the ‘general intellect’ (Marx 1973, 706) and which recognise “the existence of a growing gap between the sort of labour people continue to perform in a society mediated by labor and the sort of labor they could perform, were it not for this ‘necessity’ of capitalism.” (Postone 1993, 370) This effort must be grounded in a thoroughgoing critique of the political economy of higher education that starts from its most simple, immanent categories. It would recognise and develop the significant productive capacity of our existing historical conditions in a way whereby human knowledge or “mass intellectuality” (Dyer-Witheford 1999, 488) is seen as the emancipatory project rather than a resource for valorisation.
In a recent article “On the Abolition of Academic Labour: The Relationship Between Intellectual Workers and Mass Intellectuality”, I also argue for a critique of academic work as labour, in terms of:
- the mechanisms through which academic autonomy is increasingly alienated inside-and-against the University;
- how this alienation relates to the recalibration of the University as an association of capitals;
- how academic labour might be understood in concrete and abstract terms, and then abolished as part of a social struggle for subjectivity that is situated against value production and accumulation; and
- whether it is possible to liberate academic labour as a form of mass intellectuality that can be used inside and across society?
Akin to Joss, I also wondered about the potential for co-operative alternatives based on solidarity, where they connect to a radical, societal, democratic project of refusal, as transitional, pedagogical moments.
In this, both Joss and I focus upon Moishe Postone’s focus on time and labour as structuring capitalism’s domination.
Central to Marx’s conception of the overcoming of capitalism is his notion of people’s reappropriation of the socially general knowledge and capacities that had been constituted historically as capital. We have seen that, according to Marx, such knowledge and capacities, as capital, dominate people; such re-appropriation, then, entails overcoming the mode of domination characteristic of capitalist society, which ultimately is grounded in labor’s historically specific role as a socially mediating activity. Thus, at the core of his vision of a postcapitalist society is the historically generated possibility that people might begin to control what they create rather than being controlled by it. (Postone 1993, 373)
In this analysis, whilst transitional, co-operative organising principles are important, autonomy over time, and agency in the activities that are usefully and socially structured by time are pivotal. Here I am reminded of an excellent blog-post by Jehu on communism and wage-slavery, entitled (pace BB King) “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die to get there”. Here Jehu states that the premise of communism or a post-capitalism cannot be rooted in the abolition of the wage, or in the working class wishing to give up the possibility of an improved standard-of-living rooted in a job that pays a decent wage. Who wants to give up their access to consumer goods and holidays, aside from the impact of indenture and [private/state] debt-bondage on the need to labour? Jehu notes:
why, in all of [the co-operative or solidarity economy or state capitalist/socialist] examples cited, do we never clearly see a path to the end of class, labor, property and the state? Because they can never move beyond certain definite limits, these systems always collapse into some new state, some new method of coercing labor, and some new form of property.
In this argument, post-capitalism “appears in this society as a catastrophe to existing society.” The end of capitalist work is stagnation, no-growth or de-growth, or the inability to buy a specific set of activities or things. This is economic depression, austerity, unemployment, debt and social dislocation. It is also asset and wealth transfer to a transnational elite. Critically, writes Jehu:
To go from a situation where everyone has to sell their labor power to communism under the premises of present society implies an ever bigger shitload of people can’t find work. Communism may be the end of wage labor, but getting to the end of wage labor implies ever increasing unemployment, competition to sell labor power and social disruption. And if people can’t find work, they will turn to people who promise to create work, not those who argue we can live without it.
Trying, then to fight or struggle for any alternative is placed asymmetrically against valorisation as the structuring reality of society, and which forces us at a deep psychological level to accept our alienation from ourselves, because for those who rely on a wage to survive “the end of wage labor [is] an actual mortal threat to [their] physical existence, as the threat of starvation.” Matters are worse, as Simon Clarke argues in an essay on neoliberalism, because:
While real wages may have risen, the creation of new needs by capital has meant that the socially determined subsistence needs of the population have risen more rapidly, forcing an ever growing proportion of the population to seek work to augment the household income in the attempt to meet those needs. At the same time, a growing proportion of the population is unable to meet the ever-increasing employment demands of capital, while those in employment face the ever-growing threat of losing their jobs.
And this precarious existence, coupled to consumer needs, has also faced an assault on societal benefits and collectively-negotiated safety nets:
the mounting cost of collective provision to counter the tendencies of capitalist accumulation has given force to the neo-liberal attempt to replace collective provision with private provision through insurance-based systems, which provides yet another channel through which capital can intensify the exploitation of the mass of the working population by intensifying and profiting from their fear of misfortune.
However, Jehu is clear that there is a distinction between the capitalist class, for whom the end of capitalism would be the end of production for value and power of the means, forces and relations of production, and the working class. Here control of the means of production of use values across society and the liberation of free time as a structuring reality of that society becomes a critical field of conflict, especially in terms of autonomy over the use of time or the availability of free-time.
Theoretically the separation of the production of use values from the production of exchange values can only begin once the productive activity of the working class is not solely engaged in production of exchange value. This requires society has free disposable time to engage in productive activities that do not and cannot in any way aim at producing exchange values.
In other words, the separation of production of use values from exchange values is possible only when free disposable time of society becomes the prime source of use values. I think this cannot happen until almost all (or at least the largest part) of the personal time of individuals in society is free disposable time. The larger the quantity of free disposable time society possesses, the more likely this free time will itself become the most important source of material wealth.
The problem we face at present is that the production of material wealth cannot be separated from the production of value, because the working class has very little time of its own to engage in any activity that is not premised on value production. This cannot be fixed by demanding the state create jobs, handout basic income, raise the minimum wage or other measures very popular on the Left right now. It cannot even be fixed by more advanced ideas like market socialism, cooperatives and even Soviet style central planning.
The problem is not how wage labor is organized, managed or compensated; it is how communists propose to abolish it in a way that does not result in a catastrophe.
In his analysis of neoliberalism, Simon Clarke argues that any struggle for the abolition of wage-labour and for transcending the structuring realities of capitalism runs counter to the realities of needing access to the next [smartfone] or holiday in the Sun or cultural activity, which in-turn requires a perpetual, fiscal transaction in the present. Any such struggle also runs counter to a hegemonic project aimed at the transnational incorporation of the present and the future inside the law of value. As a result all sociability and all of life are re-produced for value.
The economist critics of neoliberalism have repeatedly exposed how restrictive and unrealistic are the assumptions on which the neoliberal model is based. However, to argue that the neoliberal model is unrealistic is somewhat to miss the point, since the neoliberal model does not purport so much to describe the world as it is, but the world as it should be. The point for neoliberalism is not to make a model that is more adequate to the real world, but to make the real world more adequate to its model. This is not merely an intellectual fantasy, it is a very real political project, to realise which neoliberalism has conquered the commanding heights of global intellectual, political and economic power, all of which are mobilised to realise the neoliberal project of subjecting the whole world’s population to the judgement and morality of capital.
This underscores Ellen Meiksins-Wood argument that:
we’re living in a moment when, for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system…. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic – the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximisation, competition – has penetrated almost every aspect of human life and nature itself.
These ideas of labour and time, pivoting around the twin aspects of the concrete and the abstract world, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to exist in a world structured around the wage, underpin the difficulties that Anselm Jappe highlights in his critical analysis of the impact of value and labour on our everyday narratives. He argues that a post-capitalist project would have to overcome the labour theory of value as it plays out in “othering”. He writes of
The difficulty of living in a society dominated by value necessarily leads to the creation of all sorts of ideologies to explain the suffering caused by such a society and that enable the subjects of labour to project onto others the qualities that they are forced to expel from themselves (e.g., “laziness,” “emotions”).
Critically we are reminded of these processes of projection that are themselves defences against the alienation of wage-labour in the State’s reaction to Occupy Democracy in London, and in the party of organised labour’s attack on immigration as a function of “progressive politics”, and in the party of organised labour’s belief that “if we want to live better than others, then we will have to be better than others”, and in the reaction of local businesses in #Ferguson Missouri to protests about the shooting of Michael Brown. In the latter it was reported by businesses that:
“I know customers who have left the area … I just want everything to go back to normal and everyone can do business again.”
“We’ve just been trying to go to work, business as usual – nobody wants to take the boards down until we see what happens. It’s more of the not knowing what’s going to happen next.”
Whither human or labour rights in the face of economic uncertainty? And who has power-over the narratives that other or that decide who is to be othered? Who has power-over narratives that dehumanise in the face of the scarcity of value? And what courage does it take to refuse or push-back against these narratives?
And earlier this week I saw the film made shortly after the occupation of the Horney College of Art, called The Hornsey Experiment. It reminded me that so many of the defences that appear to have emerged in short-order since 2008, as apparently governmental/neoliberal responses to the forms of direct action that are our collective opposition to the politics of austerity, were also present in the 1960s. That the courage it takes to refuse has a historical and material lineage that is often communal. At Hornsey, there was opposition to the marketization and accreditation of learning, and to the subsumption of learning and teaching for capitalist work, rather than as humanistic activities rooted in love. There was opposition that took the form of general assemblies and occupations. There was opposition that took the form of a new pedagogy of production, with clear links through to the liberation-praxis of the anti-University of London, the Mental Furniture Industry, and Project Sigma. There was opposition that was leaderless and invisible and which lacked demands. There was opposition that simply wished to enact power-over the production of art as a form of sociability, and power-over the organisation of the space, in ways that were against-and-beyond the formalised, accredited curriculum.
The oppositional pedagogy uncovered in the Hornsey Experiment reminded me of the dissonance that Nina Power wrote about, and which might be re-formed as a form of anti-cynicism to prevailing anti-humanist pedagogies.
Theories of universal pedagogy, that is to say, “a pedagogy that takes nothing for granted,” and the attempt to put these into practice may seem out of place in this brave new world of student consumerism and universities-as-businesses, an archaic throwback to outmoded, optimistic Enlightenment models of generic capacity and the promise of knowledge for all. Yet, perversely, the assumption of universalist, egalitarian, rationalist (although not in the sense the market would understand it) principles (or axioms, as we shall see) in education may be precisely the way out of a certain deep cynicism that pervades the attitudes of students toward their degrees, of lecturers to their students, and of the university to its responsibility to educate, and not merely to train.
The Hornsey Experiement was met with threats of Police dogs and barbed wire fences, alongside alleged criticism and cynicism from some local people. Moreover, under the promise of discussions about a new organisational structure, curriculum and pedagogical approach for the College, the occupation ended and was neutralised in the bureaucracy of the College’s administrative structures. The energy of the general assembly was dissipated in the dampening of the committee structure, and in the midst of deliberation in hegemonic structures those with power-over the College securitised the space so that occupations would be harder to achieve, and then excluded students who had occupied, and demanded that visibility and accreditation would be the productive order of things. As Bourdieu and Passeron argue in Reproduction in Education Society and Culture:
An educational system based on a traditional type of pedagogy can fulfil its function of inculcation only so long as it addresses itself to students equipped with the linguistic and cultural capital – and the capacity to invest it profitably – which the system presupposes and consecrates without ever expressly demanding it and without methodically transmitting it.
Those with power-over demand control over our sociability reinforced through a specific type of cultural value, which as Clarke, Jehu and Jappe note has a certain morality attached to it. It is inside-and-against this hegemonic, cultural normalisation that an alternative, transitional politics has to emerge, rooted in the idea of free time. For Alexander Trocchi, in the glow of Project Sigma, this meant the liberation of time for relatively elastic forms of spontaneity and experiment to take root:
Each branch of the spontaneous university will be the nucleus of an experimental town to which all kinds of people will be attracted for shorter or longer periods of time and from which, if we are successful, they will derive a renewed and infectious sense of life. We envisage an organization whose structure and mechanisms are infinitely elastic; we see it as the gradual crystallization of a regenerative cultural force, a perpetual brainwave, creative intelligence everywhere recognizing and affirming its own involvement.
However, at issue is still Jehu’s question of how any such spontaneous, pedagogical experiments enable us to work toward the abolition of wage labour in a way that does not result in a catastrophe. For Marx in The German Ideology this issue has to be addressed communally.
The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relationships) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community, in which individuals have up till now combined, always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and was at the same time, since it was the combination of one class over against another, not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.
Quite how this is to be done in the face of socio-environmental catastrophe, the politics of austerity, crippling levels of personal and State debt, reduced access to cheap, liquid fuel, and the cultural imperative to maintain standards of living and growth-based agendas as the structuring realities of life is another issue.