on digital literacy, use value and alienation

With Lucy Atkins and Josie Fraser, I’ve just had a paper published on Defining a self-evaluation digital literacy framework for secondary educators. The abstract for this paper connects educational policy to classroom practice, in order to support the creation of a framework that amplifies teacher-agency and the idea of radical collegiality. This is important in enabling teachers to engage in a conversation about reclaiming the spaces that are infused by pedagogy technology. In the face of UK Coalition Government and opposition Labour Party attacks on the professionalism of teaching staff, which further reproduce anxiety-driven performance management, this repositioning of digital literacy as a crack through which teacher professionalism might be reclaimed seems important.

The abstract goes as follows.

Despite the growing interest in digital literacy within educational policy, guidance for secondary educators in terms of how digital literacy translates into the classroom is lacking. As a result, many teachers feel ill-prepared to support their learners in using technology effectively. The DigiLit Leicester project created an infrastructure for holistic, integrated change, by supporting staff development in the area of digital literacy for secondary school teachers and teaching support staff. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how the critique of existing digital literacy frameworks enabled a self-evaluation framework for practitioners to be developed. Crucially, this framework enables a co-operative, partnership approach to be taken to pedagogic innovation. Moreover, it enables social and ethical issues to underpin a focus on teacher-agency and radical collegiality inside the domain of digital literacy. Thus, the authors argue that the shared development framework constitutes a new model for implementing digital literacy aimed at transforming the provision of secondary education across a city.

We argue that in moving beyond audit-based frameworks to one that is framed through trusted self-evaluation, it is possible to connect educational practices to pedagogy and continuing professional development. We speak about embedding self-review into the heart of a digital literacy project, and then deliberately connecting them to co-operative, practitioner-led development opportunities that are negotiated across a City. In focusing on the development of co-operative practices that are rooted in pedagogic practice, we argue that it is possible to strengthen radical collegiality, and thereby push back against policy directives that marketise and commodify the curriculum and reduce its meaning to entrepreneurial skills and employability. This focus on teacher-agency and co-operation, which pivots around a custom self-evaluation framework, demonstrates that city-wide pedagogic transformation through teacher empowerment is a radical possibility.

There are two ways in which this argument might be enriched. First, through a focus on the ways in which technologies and hence digital literacy might be used to democratise the classroom and to discuss alternative social forms. Second, on the contradictions between digital literacy formation and the ways in which technologies are alienating.

ONE. On digital and democratic literacy

One of the key contradictions that emerge from inside capitalism is that of the commodity framed by value. I have written elsewhere about how educational skills, services, practices, data and so on, are being commodified and accumulated by third parties or associations of capitals, through the control of information streams or access to software that is protected by patents or through the enclosure of the digital commons, and so on. However, in the literature there is little analysis of how digital skills, practices and knowledge might be developed, shared and re-purposed co-operatively inside and across the classroom, in order to describe an alternative world away from education for employability or entrepreneurship.

One way in which a dialogue around alternatives might emerge is through a focus on the social use value of those digital skills, practices and knowledge as opposed to their exchange value. The latter posits the market as the only mechanism through which students or staff can access or develop digital literacy as an individual use for them. Yet, there are examples in the Telekommunist Manifesto and from venture communism of how approaches to policy and practice of digital literacy rooted in peer production and copyfarleft might enable the social use of digital technologies to be amplified over-and-above their individuated, entrepreneurial accumulation and exchange. As Dmytri Kleiner argues in the Telekommunist Manifesto (p. 8):

We need venture communism, a form of struggle against the continued expansion of property-based capitalism, a model for worker self-organization inspired by the topology of peer-to-peer networks and the historical pastoral commons.

This means that inside and beyond the classroom, spaces are needed that refuse their co-option for the market and for the accumulation of wealth and power by an elite. This includes the ways in which public education is co-opted for a rentier class that harvests data, and sells and re-sells services, or the ways in which technologies are used to maintain alienating structures of domination over teachers and students who can be individually or as a fraction of a social class labelled as luddites or laggards or failing.

This labelling does little for the generation of social solutions to social problems, and risks exacerbating the disconnection between how people think and act with digital technologies, and how they engage in a broader political process. This disconnect is amplified through technological change that removes our collective power and autonomy, when all that teachers and students are left with is: the next upgraded mobile tool or tablet or bring your own device policy; the obsession with personalisation through access to data and information about performance or always-on social networks; the latest fetishized technological solution to engagement or emancipation; the monitoring and surveillance, including auditing, of performance through external frameworks; or whatever. Students and teachers are simply left with compensatory consumption and the outsourcing of solutions to social problems, and as they approach higher education they face increasing levels of debt and alienation. In part this is because those spaces that should be enabling students and teachers to develop creative alternative uses for skills, practices and knowledge are subsumed under exchange value and the desperate search for entrepreneurial truth.

Thus, we might question whether those digital literacies might be developed, in order to frame an alternative peer-produced pedagogy of care, which drives: collective uses for skills, practices and knowledge; social value rather than the desire to use education to accumulate money or private property; and associated educational forms, perhaps as open commons? In turn one might hope that it is possible to find ways to act co-operatively and to share resources that maintain their associational, not for-profit strength. As Kleiner argues (p. 28):

While copyleft is very effective in creating a commons of software, to achieve a commons of cultural works requires copyfarleft, a form of free licensing that denies free access to organizations that hold their own assets outside the commons.

This is the production of a pedagogic space that is against the ideological power, culture and democracy of money. This is the use and production of a digitally-infused education that denies the one per cent their ideological and practical pedagogic support. This builds upon the work of the peer-to-peer foundation in finding ways to generalise forms of peer production, peer governance, and peer property, in order to overcome three critical issues that fold education and digital contexts into their logics.

The first is that ‘The current political economy is based on a false idea of material abundance. We call it pseudo-abundance. It is based on a commitment to permanent growth, the infinite accumulation of capital and debt-driven dynamics through compound interest.’

The second is that ‘The current political economy is based on a false idea of “immaterial scarcity. It believes that an exaggerated set of intellectual property monopolies – for copyrights, trademarks and patents – should restrain the sharing of scientific, social and economic innovations. Hence the system discourages human cooperation, excludes many people from benefiting from innovation and slows the collective learning of humanity. In an age of grave global challenges, the political economy keeps many practical alternatives sequestered behind private firewalls or unfunded if they cannot generate adequate profits.’

The third is that ‘The pseudo-abundance that destroys the biosphere, and the contrived scarcity that keeps innovation artificially scarce and slow, does not advance social justice. Although people may have a formal legal equality of civil and political rights, serious and increasing material inequalities make those rights more nominal than real. At the other extreme, the polity explicitly grants human rights to the artificial legal construct of the for-profit corporation, a pathological institution that is solely beholden to its shareholders, and is constitutionally unable to take into account the common good.’

Michael Bauwens and Franco Iacomella argue that:

The peer-to-peer vision relies upon the three major sectors of society – the state, market and civil society – but with different roles and in a revitalized equilibrium. At the core of the new society is civil society, with the commons as its main institution, which uses peer production to generate common value outside of the market logic. These commons consist of both the natural heritage of mankind (oceans, the atmosphere, land, etc.), and commons that are created through collective societal innovation, many of which can be freely shared because of their immaterial nature (shared knowledge, software and design, culture and science).

They see this produced through

future political and cultural alliances… as a confluence of various global forces: 1) those working against the enclosure and the privatization of knowledge, which are simultaneously constructing new knowledge commons; 2) those working for environmental sustainability, including the protection of existing physical commons; and 3) those working for social justice on a local and global scale. In other words, we need a global alliance between the new “open” movements, the ecological movements, and the traditional social justice and emancipatory movements, in order to create a “grand alliance of the commons.”

The question then is what is the role of digital literacy and digitally-enabled educational spaces in creating such a co-operative dynamic? Is it possible to use copyfarleft against the use of Intellectual Property Rights as new sources of monopoly power for rentiers? Is it possible to liberate digital technologies infused as social use values through critical pedagogy, in order to open up new areas of class struggle? Is it possible to develop and protect the social and associational use value of the critical, educational, open Commons , in order to talk through alternatives? Is it possible to open out educational possibility through the knowledge commons or free access to higher education, rather than let them be structured through the market?

One critical context is a more critical understanding of how technological intensity, including the use of digital tools and the development of digital skills, tends to make labour redundant. Just as we embrace the range of technological possibilities of the open commons or of digital production, we also need to face the reality that capital uses technological and organisational innovation to discipline labour and to impose consumerism. Capital controls and deploys technology to squeeze value out of labour, be that through new pedagogies for the entrepreneurial self, or to leverage strategies for employability or internationalisation. At issue is how might we embrace digital literacy through a more democratic pedagogy and a co-operative classroom to enable its social use.

TWO. On digital literacy and technological alienation

For Marx (pp. 327, 330), the worker suffers a four-fold alienation.

First from the product of his labour, which becomes “an alien object that has power over him”.

Second in his working activity, which he perceives as “directed against himself,” as if it “does not belong to him”.

Third from “man’s species being,” which is transformed into “a being alien to him”.

Fourth, from other human beings, and in relation to their labour and the object of their labour.

Marx (p. 324) argued that

…the externalization of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien.

In this view all labour under private property, rather than that which co-operatively shaped an associational and open society, is alienated because one has to work in order to live. This is an external, non-authentic life shaped by wage slavery and the spectacle of consumerism. Digital life is central to this focus on the consumption of skills or content or practice, rather than on open production and sharing. This is the logic of commodifying the social and the personal, in order that it can be marketised or monetised. Education is not immune from this process, as the prevalence of merchants across the compulsory and post-compulsory sectors attests.

At issue here is the extent to which the digital literacy agenda, or that of coding for kids, or MOOCs, or the generation of digital practices, is each connected to the forces of production of capitalist society. So how do they reproduce spaces for value creation and accumulation, or surveillance and performance management, rather than for personal or societal growth and mutuality? As Marx noted in the Grundrisse, this is connected to the objective conditions of living labour, which are increasingly framed by the need to be entrepreneurial, in order to survive a marketised life.

The objective conditions of living labour appear as separated, independent values opposite living labour capacity as subjective being… The objective conditions of living labour capacity are presupposed as having an existence independent of it, as the objectivity of a subject distinct from living labour capacity and standing independently over against it; the reproduction and realization, i.e. the expansion of these objective conditions, is therefore at the same time their own reproduction and new production as the wealth of an alien subject indifferently and independently standing over against labour capacity. What is reproduced and produced anew is not only the presence of these objective conditions of living labour, but also their presence as independent values, i.e. values belonging to an alien subject, confronting this living labour capacity. (pp. 461-2)

How is digital literacy used to reproduce the objective conditions inside which the teacher and student must labour? How does digital literacy appear as a natural value of entrepreneurial education confronting and alienating the teacher or student?

This then forces us to rethink how digital skills, practices and knowledge developed in the classroom and developed by social labour:

appear as the productive forces of capitalism… Collective unity in co-operation, combination in the division of labour, the use of the forces of nature and the sciences, of the products of labour, as machinery – all these confront the individual  workers as something alien, objective, ready-made, existing without their intervention, and frequently even hostile to them. They all appear quite simply as the prevailing forms of the instruments of labour. As objects they are independent of the workers whom they dominate. Though the workshop is to a degree the product of the workers’ combination, its entire intelligence and will seem to be incorporated in the capitalist or his understrappers, and the workers find themselves confronted by the functions of the capital that lives in the capitalist. (Marx, Capital Volume 1, p. 1054).

How do digital literacies, through the skills, practices and knowledge developed, and the frameworks that are used to measure or self-evaluate them, appear to be external to the teacher and student, and structuring of their labour and identity? How do they dominate the teacher and student so that they must be entrepreneurial or risk becoming unemployable? How do they invalidate and make anxious certain behaviours and performances? How do they structure and reinforce perceptions of professionalism? Again, we might ask how do we work against the use of digital literacy for exchange value, in order to liberate their social and mutual use value? As Marx argues in Capital Volume 3 (p. 959):

Freedom, in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.

How do we shape critical, digital spaces for collegial forms of continuing professional development that are productive of an alternative, radical pedagogy? How do we use such a radical approach to CPD, in order to shape a different social life?


Technology and co-operative practice against the neoliberal university

I’m presenting at the the CAPPE Neoliberalism and Everyday Life conference next September, at the University of Brighton. My abstract is below.

Abstract: Neoliberalism is a global pedagogical project aimed at the dispossession of free time so that all of life becomes productive, and education is a central institutional means for its realisation. This project aims at marketising all of social life, so that life becomes predicated upon the extraction of value. In part the deployment of technologies, technical services and techniques enables education to be co-opted as an institutional means for production and control. This occurs inside both formal and informal educational institutions and spaces, like universities and MOOCs, as one mechanism to offset the tendency for the rate of profit to fall and to re-establish accumulation. This pedagogic project also tends to recalibrate and enclose the roles of staff and students as entrepreneurial subjects, whose labour is enabled through technology. This is achieved through learning analytics, big data, mobility and flexibility of provision, and so on. This paper will analyse the relationships between technology, pedagogy and the critical subject in the neoliberal University, in order to argue for the use of technology inside a co-operative pedagogy of struggle. This demands that we ask what education is, before we ask what it is for, or the place of technology-enhanced learning in the university. The article considers whether it is possible to uncover stories of how and where education might be used for co-operation rather than competition, and what technology-enhanced co-operative education might look like?


On circuits of affect and resistance

This post was written whilst listening to LCD Soundsystem’s last concert at Madison Square Garden.

ONE. Circuits of affect and resistance

Yesterday I attended an ESRC seminar series on Digital Policy: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights. The seminar was on Affective Digital Economy: Intimacy, Identity and Networked Realities. One of the key points that emerged from the day was the need to reconnect a political critique into the lived realities of social spaces like the Allsorts Youth Project, or in work related to transnational communications amongst a diaspora, or where we are thinking about the relationships between spaces, surveillance and mental health. In particular the event had me considering how we abstract the specificities of our individual or community-based struggles, in order:

  1. To find sites of solidarity that enable us to push back against the alienation of capitalist work and the marginalisation or labelling of our identities;
  2. To recognise how we might resist capital as the automatic subject, from the standpoint of labour;
  3. To understand and analyse the relationships between affects, cognition and kinaesthetics, and how they are captured and then subsumed under the circuit of production.

One outcome of this is the extent to which we might see the social circuits of affect or emotion, not as a means for converting immaterial labour into the commodity form, but as a mechanism for refusing and then interrupting the circuits of production, commodity or money capital. This might be done by revealing our systemic alienation from the products of our labour, from our labour itself, from ourselves and from our species-being. Or it might be done by opening-out spaces for sharing rather than trading, and for use-value rather than exchange-value. Or it might be done by redefining the organising principles on which technological systems, technologies and data are used, so that they are co-operative rather than marketised and securitised. Or resistance and pushing-back might be something else entirely.

TWO. Some notes on affect, immaterial labour and cognitive capital

One of the points of contention during the day was whether affect or emotion was a commodity or could be commodified. From my perspective, there was a large amount of confusion around this point, and it connects affect, cognitive capital and immaterial labour. For Beradi, a focus on affect or emotion reveals the mechanisms through which the human soul is commodified through data, databases, being always-on, perceived speed-up, network-centrism and so on, and can thereby be put to work. In this Autonomist tradition, the autonomy or ability of globalised labour to develop its own self-awareness and to utilise technology to act for-itself is critical. Thus, feeling is critical. Here there is no outside of capitalism, and overcoming the alienation of capitalist work demands mechanisms that push back against it, and structures that are beyond its value-form. This idea of negating capital from the point-of-view of the working class as revolutionary social subject is revealed in the epithet in-against-beyond, and predicates critiques of the structures that reproduce capitalism’s domination, like the State and its educational institutions. It is important to recognise that in this view capital needs labour in order to be valorised, but labour does not need capital and is therefore potentially autonomous. This self-awareness or subjectivity is not automatic and demands a co-operative species-being that is cognitively, affectively and kinaesthetically aware.

In classical Marxism, material production forms the basis of all social life and drives the objective history of capitalist social relations. However, radical shifts in technology are important because they revolutionise the valorisation process. For Marx, the magnitude of the value of labour is driven by the labour-time that is socially necessary to produce a specific commodity ‘under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society’ (Marx 2004, p. 129). Thus, academic labour is particularly valuable as a result of the amount of socially-necessary labour-time embedded in its products, which integrate specialised cognitive and material means of production. This promises the capitalist high rates of surplus value extraction or rental income from patents or licenses. However, the people and skills that support such high-end commodity capitalism, are both menial and leverage, and can be made precarious or be outsourced. One outcome of this cognitive work is a view that the material, objective world is replaced by a subjective immateriality that is increasingly inscribed digitally, and which suggests a limitless expansion of the system across the social factory.

Therefore, inside education a focus on immateriality encourages an analysis of the struggle between labour and capital in the creation and commodification of what is termed cognitive capital. Technology is a critical force in the production and accumulation of cognitive capital because it as Žižek notes, it ‘reduces everything to functions and raw materials’, with the result that individual emotions and affects, cultural cues and mores, and the construction of the relations between individuals ‘are themselves the very material of our everyday exploitation’. Educational contexts are vital in enabling capital to find circuits for extracting value from socio-emotional or personalised learning, using technologies like smartphones or personal learning networks. These mechanisms enable capital to enclose and commodify an increasingly fluid and identity-driven set of social relations, which themselves form the basis of further exchange. These processes of exchange are catalysed by, for example, the sharing of personal information on cloud-based social networks that can be aggregated and data-mined. Thus, all activity or work inside the social factory, including the processes of learning serve as the basis for developing new services and applications. For Beradi (2009, p. 90) this construct emerges across the length, breadth and depth of cyberspace from the immaterial labour of knowledge-workers who

move to find signs, to elaborate experience, or simply to follow the paths of their existence. But at every moment and place they are reachable and can be called back to perform a productive function that will be reinserted into the global cycle of production. In a certain sense, cellular phones realize the dream of capital: that of absorbing every possible atom of time at the exact moment the productive cycle needs it. In this way, workers offer their entire day to capital and are paid only for the moments when their time is made cellular. Info-producers can be seen as neuro-workers. They prepare their nervous system as an active receiving terminal for as much time as possible. The entire lived day becomes subject to a semiotic activation which becomes directly productive only when necessary.

In this view, social relations are increasingly structured by technically-mediated organisations like schools and the University, which then re-inscribe socio-political hierarchies that are increasingly technological, coercive and exploitative. This coercive and exploitative set of characteristics is driven by the competitive dynamics of capitalism, and especially the ways in which the socially necessary character of the labour-power expended in producing a particular commodity or innovation or technology is diminished over-time. This reduces the value of knowledge and specific immaterial skills in the market, resulting in a persistent demand to innovate, to become entrepreneurial or to hold and manage proprietary or creative skills.

Thus, constant innovation becomes a central pedagogic project, for instance in: monitoring and stimulating cognition through pervasive technology and mobility; enforcing private property rights through intellectual property and patent law so that a knowledge-rent economy can take hold; opening-up public data and knowledge so that new cloud-based services based on learning analytics can be developed and marketised; amplifying innovations around internationalisation like MOOCs and open educational resources so that world markets of consumption and production of commodities and cognitive capital are opened-up; and organising, disciplining and exploiting an immaterial workforce, orcognitariat’. This is a terrain of conflict, especially as the processes that deliver cognitive capital involve the development of cyborgs or the fusing of objectivised, fixed machinery and human subjects. Instead of the promised technologically-fuelled reduction in toil and labour-time, technology ‘suffers a dialectical inversion and becomes the most unfailing means for turning the whole lifetime of the worker and his family into labour-time at capital’s disposal for its own valorisation’ (Marx, 1993, p. 532).

In the Autonomist tradition, the concept of immateriality is tied to the production of living knowledge, or the general intellect, which offers a theoretical tool to analyse the transformation of labour and knowledge production through the integration of science and technology across society. Thus, it is important that the immaterial world of capital, in which it is believed that accumulation can occur without material production, is inverted so that the fetishised myth of technology as the creator of value is replaced by an analysis of co-operative, socialised labour-power. This can be revealed through a critique of Marx’s (1993) concept of the general intellect, inside-and-against a networked, globalised production/consumption process, as it emerges as mass intellectuality.

THREE. Some criticisms of immateriality or affective capital

Criticisms of Autonomist Marxism have focused on its apparent network-centrism and its concomitant disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape our objective social reality. The same is also true of those who would make claims for affect or emotion as commodity, or themselves as the source of value (see below Camfield, 2007; Davies, 2011; Robinson, 2004). In particular, there is a tendency to forget the realities of privatisation and outsourcing to the global South, and for the accumulation of natural resources, like rare earth metals, oil and coal, and human capital from that same space, alongside cataclysmic environmental despoilation. Thus, as Camfield (2007, p. 31) argues

biopolitical labour… fails to make distinctions between the different forms of production involved in the production of all that falls within the scope of ‘social life itself ’. In a highly abstract sense, it is possible to talk of labour producing goods, services, social relations, and human subjectivities. Yet it is essential to be able to distinguish the production of ourselves as human subjects through our relationships with nature and each other in determinate socio-material conditions and particular historical moments from the production by humans of, say, microprocessors. Very different kinds of production processes and products are involved. Labour is at the heart of them all, but at different levels of abstraction and in different social forms.

Moreover, entrepreneurial education and the promise of technology in the global North support precarious work and hyper-exploitation for those without proprietary skills, alongside reinforcing transnational hierarchies. Thus King (2010, p. 287) notes that ‘From a structural perspective, even with the transformative powers of digital technology, we are not moving into a post-capitalist age. The fundamental property relationships that underpin the class structure remain intact and have sharply intensified.’ The question is whether and how the connections between sites of exploitation including education and technology can be made.

What might be noted of the Autonomist approach is that its broader categories enable a critique of capitalist work in the networked society, which point to how the whole of human life is systemically enclosed and mined for new services. The connections between immaterial or affective labour in the production of cognitive capital, and their connections to the broadening and deepening of the accumulation of value across the whole of society restructured as a factory, point towards the mechanisms through which technology-rich educational settings are co-opted for work.

When we use the term capital, we might reflect on how it is not only value-in-motion, but also an alienating social relation based on specific, totalising organising principles that are themselves coercive. Any notion of choice, ethics, morals, identity, empowerment, agency and so on, can only emerge as objectified or alienated inside and subjugated through this totality. So affective capital points to asymmetrical power relations, separation, alienated labour and being, and fetishized relations. For example, for a community forced out of its homeland by war, that maintains contact via a synchronous technology like skype, we might ask how they and those of us who tolerate this state-of-being are alienated at each point by capital: in the geographical struggles for means of production that drive war; in the struggle for self-worth and betterment that force us to migrate to earn a wage to subsist; in the promise of a better life that can only exist as capitalist work and the entrepreneurial or neoliberal self; in the fetish of familial or communal connection through the use of technology. In each case, those communities are separated from the land, from their labour, from their society and ultimately from themselves.

One problem of the use of terms like affective capital is that it risks reducing people to human capital or means of production, which are themselves dehumanising. We risk accepting our alienation through its temporary and marginal technological amelioration. Perhaps what is needed is a critique of the forms of political economy/political debate/politics of austerity/war that force us to view human lives and society as restricted by the idea of economic/exchange value. What is certainly needed is a recognition that the forces of production across capitalist society, which are increasingly restructuring all of life as means of production, are also increasingly ranged asymmetrically against the everyday experiences of young people. The question for academics is how to support both critique and the development/nurturing of alternative forms of society that in-turn push-back against the neoliberal agenda that commodifies humanity, including through the co-option and subsumption of affect or emotion or “the subject”.

FOUR. Some references on Autonomia or affect or immateriality

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Beradi, F. 2009. The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. Transl. F. Cadel and G. Mecchia, with preface by J.E. Smith. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).

Bonefeld, W. 2010. What is the alternative? Shift Magazine 11. http://shiftmag.co.uk/?p=400.

Burston, J., N. Dyer-Witheford, and A. Hearn. 2010. Digital labour: Workers, authors, citizens. ephemera 10, no. 3/4: 214-221

Camfield, D. 2007. The Multitude and the Kangaroo: A Critique of Hardt and Negri’s Theory of Immaterial Labour. Historical Materialism 15: 21-52.

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Cleaver, H. 2002. Reading capital politically. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Davies, J.S. 2011. Challenging Governance Theory: From Networks to Hegemony. London: Policy Press.

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Dyer-Witheford, N. 2004. Autonomist Marxism and the Information Society. Canberra: Treason Press. http://libcom.org/library/autonomist-marxism-information-society-nick-witheford.

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King, B. On the new dignity of labour. ephemera 10, no. 3/4: 285-302.

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Neary, M. 2012. Teaching Politically: Policy, Pedagogy and the New European University. The Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies 10, no. 2: 233-57.

Negri, A. 1988. Revolution Retrieved: Selected Writings on Marx, Keynes, Capitalist Crisis and New Social Subjects, 1967-83, trans. E. Emery and J. Merrington. London: Red Notes.

Negri, A. 1989. The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Negri, A. 1991. Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse. New York, NY: Autonomedia.

Newfield, C. 2010. The structure and silence of Cognitariat. EduFactory webjournal 0: 10-26. http://www.edu-factory.org/edu15/webjournal/n0/Newfield.pdf.

Novara Media. 2013. Immaterial Labour Isn’t Working. NovaraFM 2 (38). http://novaramedia.com/2013/04/immaterial-labour-isnt-working/.

Robinson, W.I. 2004. A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World. Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press.

Roggero, G. 2011. The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Thorburn, E. 2012. Actually Existing Autonomy and the Brave New World of Higher Education. Occupied Studies. http://bit.ly/xzcPRO.

Tiqqun. 2001. The Cybernetic Hypothesis. http://bit.ly/mTWhMI.

Tronti, M. 1971. Operai e Capitale. Einaudi: Turin.

Tronti, M. 1979, Lenin in England. Red Notes Working Class. Autonomy and the Crisis. London: Red Notes.

Vercellone, C. 2007. From Formal Subsumption to General Intellect. Historical Materialism 15: 13-36

Virno, P. 2001. General Intellect. http://www.generation-online.org/p/fpvirno10.htm.

Virno, P. 2004. A Grammar of the Multitude. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).

Wendling, A. E. 2009. Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Winn, J. 2012. Open Education: From the Freedom of Things to the Freedom of People. In Towards Teaching in Public, ed. M. Neary, H. Stevenson, and L. Bell, 133-47. London: Continuum.

Winn, J. 2013. Tag Archive: Immaterial Labour. http://josswinn.org/tag/immaterial-labour/.


On Autonomist Marxism and the affective economy

I’m speaking on 29th November at an ESRC seminar series on Digital Policy: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights. The seminar is on Affective Digital Economy: Intimacy, Identity and Networked Realities.

Whilst Josie Fraser will be speaking about our Digital Literacy Leicester Framework Project, I will briefly develop a critique rooted in political economy. My own thinking in this area is derived from a reflection on the autonomist Marxist position that relates the affective domain and network governance to core concepts of the social factory, immaterial labour and cognitive capital, the general intellect and mass intellectuality, and the cybernetic hypothesis. I am interested in how these concepts enable a critical reading of socio-economic developments in information and communication technology. This is particularly important in enabling a critique of the place of education and technology inside the circuits and cycles of globalised capitalism, which is too easily defined as frictionless and networked in the face of the hegemonic realities of hierarchical, transnational forces of production. So my take is that we might use these categories of affective labour etc. to critique how technology-rich educational settings are co-opted for work, in order that possibilities for pushing back against the subsumption of life for capitalist work might be developed.

The seminar offers a space to discuss this theoretical framework/the development of alternatives in the context of the following two questions:

*  Who are the major actors currently shaping this economy and how?
*  What are the major dangers and risks in affective digital economy?

This is especially so in the context of the intention of the ESRC seminar series that: “At this moment of potentially profound changes in policy and practice, it is crucial to bring together actors with contrasting interests and perspectives to help inform and stimulate further debate and research.”

NOTE: the Occupied Times provides quite a nice description of how our consumption of technologies, and our disengagement or anaesthetised view of them as empowering, is totally disconnected from the material realities of their production. So our circuit in space-time of the consumption of technologies and the affective production of digital artefacts, fails to connect or recognise the everyday realities of the appropriation of lives and livelihoods that exists either in the mines that produce the raw materials (Tin, Coltan etc.) that go into our consumer technologies or the factories that build them. The clean outer shells of our hardware and software tools distance us from the immiseration of other human beings and forms a layer of false consciousness. Beneath the cloud and inside the tablet lies a proletarianised hell, reinforced with every click.

For the citizen and end-user, the experience of technology throughout post-WWII decades has been one of increasing degrees of separation between the internal blood and guts of the machine – from hardware to code – and the soft, alluring outer shell of the commodity form. All the traces of isolation and alienation that stem from this formula place an increasing number of steps between the immediate sensory encounter and the reality of the machine.

To catch a glimpse of the world removed at the heart of this machine, consider this century’s resources warfare in Congo. With the tech sector operating on the back of corporate appetite, the pressure to produce is carried from the drawing boards of Silicon valleys to the point of production’s material origin. In Congo, where demand for hi-tech device resources such as Tantalum has escalated in recent years beyond the capacity to supply, this pressure has only served to fuel the wider conflict over the control and appropriation of these resources. This situation is estimated to have claimed the lives of more than 5 million people, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since the second world war.

Here we can trace commodified communications technology born from the arse-end of violence to the mouth of your receiver. From ass to mouth – the food chain of 21st century technology production crosses gulfs, from violence to exploitation, until reaching civility; a history revealed only through the will to examine the world beneath the shimmering electronic propaganda of the new Samsung or Apple device.

We find ourselves removed from the very tools we use, encountering an unarticulated domain between production and use. The space-time contours of everyday social life are dramatically revised. This is especially true in our use of technology and how we mediate our relationships with the ‘real world’, as it becomes harder and harder to define and separate our technological identities from the idea that we also exist ‘in real life’. Our agency, as political beings, flows in between these spaces; interacting and composing itself from the vast caches of information that circulate on the network while at the same time being coerced by the near-universal grammar of our state of technology.


Critical perspectives on educational technology: some notes

Yesterday’s symposium on critical perspectives on educational technology made me think about the following issues.

FIRST. How do we understand the structuring effects of the educational and pedagogic structures in which we work? How do we understand the ways in which those structures prefigure the impact or effects of any intervention? How do we understand how the very structures in which we are hoping to promote or provoke transformation, in themselves work to restrict, discipline or kettle transformation. How do we move beyond the problem-solving perspective of educational innovation, in order to situate the use of educational technology inside transnational systems of domination?

SECOND. How do we understand how such transformation is itself kettled by the circuits of capital? In particular how do we understand the mechanisms through which our lived educational work falls under the treadmill logic of accumulation and the rate of profit? How do we work to understand how Capital as the automatic subject structures our struggle for emancipation or transformation? How do we work to describe and then to critique that struggle?

THIRD. If we are defining something, some intervention, or some innovation as valuable, then we need to describe and discuss what valuable/value means. Inside capitalism value has a specific description and sets of precepts that flow from it. Moreover it is dynamic and fluid. Capital is value in motion. So can we describe something else that is a different type of value? Can we do this based on co-operation or co-operative or social practice(s)?

FOURTH. Keith Turvey made me think about the ways in which commodities like a book of logarithm tables might be inscribed with historical meaning and social value, and how those shared commodities might be used as points of solidarity in describing the world. Through a process of participatory narrative design (of practices, knowledges and skills) we might define something that is spatially or socially or historically different. More importantly we might use specific commodities to explode the relationships and conceptions and organising principles that are congealed in them. So how might we disassemble a tablet or piece of software or network, to look at the labour and human rights revealed inside it/them? How might we look at how their production and consumption processes place us in-and-against nature? We need to analyse specific technologies in light of David Harvey’s re-reading of footnote 4 of Chapter 15 of Volume 1 of Capital. He argues that they reveal the following.

  1. Technological and organisational forms of production, exchange and consumption.
  2. Relations to nature and the environment.
  3. Social relations between people.
  4. Mental conceptions of the world, embracing knowledges and cultural understandings and beliefs.
  5. Labour processes and production of specific goods, geographies, services or affects.
  6. Institutional, legal and governmental arrangements.
  7. The conduct of daily life that underpins social reproduction.

FIFTH. I needed to be clearer in my argument. It was this: it is impossible to critique educational technology without addressing its place inside a global system of capitalism; this system is struggling to re-establish stable forms of accumulation and rates of profit, and this struggle is usefully analysed as a secular crisis; one systemic response to this crisis, catalysed by a transnational activist network that includes academics, has been to use technologies and techniques to open-up public education for the market because there is no alternative; detailing the use of specific technologies like Blackboard as a LMS, or Pearson as a publisher, or the use of tablet technologies, enables critical questions to be asked about the relationships between education, technology and the market in the reproduction of Capital as a social relationship;  asking these questions also enables us to ask whether there are alternative organising principles beyond the market, namely through co-operation, that might enable us to describe alternative forms of value and alternative societies; there are stories from South America and Latin America that are not to be fetishized, but which offer an alternative perspective; in light of the dehumanising effects of neoliberalism, the recent IPCC report on climate change, and the Royal Society’s People and Planet report, we need to ask whether there is another way.

SIXTH. I needed to make it clear that this is not just abstract, and that I try to enact critique in my work at the Social Science Centre or in alternative projects, and in my work on the Digilit Leicester Project, and in catalysing the DMU Academic Commons. These are political, they are about reflexivity and self-awareness,  and they are about the struggle/courage for different organising principles.

SEVENTH. These resources are useful ways forward.

Affinities on The New Cooperativism: http://bit.ly/187iT8R

De Peuter and Dyer Witheford on Commoning: http://bit.ly/Ve2cE9

Draft report on the contribution of cooperatives to overcoming the crisis: http://bit.ly/1gyzDtk

Lambie on Cuba: http://bit.ly/mIdVzV

Lebowitz on Co-Management in Venezuela: http://bit.ly/1awBnOF

Office Central de la Coopération à l’Ecole: http://www.occe.coop

The Schools Co-operative Society: http://bit.ly/z1YmCA

Joss Winn on Helplessness: http://josswinn.org/2013/07/helplessness/

The Republic of Ecuador. National Development Plan: National Plan for Good Living 2009-2013: Building a Plurinational and Intercultural State. http://bit.ly/GQJi0M

Student as producer: http://studentasproducer.lincoln.ac.uk/

Ds106: http://ds106.us/

Zibechi, R. 2013. Autonomous Zapatista Education: The Little Schools of Below. http://bit.ly/19XfrAF

Miller Medina, J.E. (2005), The State Machine : politics, ideology, and computation in Chile, 1964-1973. MIT Ph.D. Thesis. http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/39176

Cleaver, H. 1979. Reading Capital Politically, University of Texas Press: Austin, TX, p. 161. http://libcom.org/files/cleaver-reading_capital_politically.pdf


The University, technology and co-operation

On Tuesday 15 October I’m presenting something on “The University, technology and co-operation”, at the Critical Perspectives on Educational Technology symposium at the University of Brighton, UK.

There are some notes on a co-operative pedagogy of struggle here.

My slides are here.

The Spotify playlist that accompanies the talk is here.


The Digilit Leicester Project

The Leicester Digital Literacies Framework (Digilit Leicester) Project is a two-year, whole-city, educational intervention that pivots around a knowledge exchange partnership between Leicester City Council and De Montfort University. It is led by me and Josie Fraser, with Lucy Atkins as the Research Associate. The project’s website is at: http://www.digilitleic.com/

The project runs from 2012-14 and is in-part funded through the Higher Education Innovation Fund. It aims to support staff development in the area of digital literacy, through the development and implementation of a self-evaluation framework for secondary school teachers and teaching support staff. The concept of digital literacy is increasingly recognised as a critical terrain for 21st Century life, with digital competence identified by The Council of the EU and the Department for Education, as well as agencies like NAACE and JISC.

The DigiLit Leicester Project is the first of its kind in Europe. No other research project has attempted to collect information about staff skills and confidence in digital literacy on this scale, and thereby attempted to connect teacher-agency, school development and City-wide transformation. One of the critical points about the project is its grounded nature: using a process of pedagogic self-evaluation to scale school and City-wide innovation and change.

The project is designed to ensure school staff and learners are getting the most from the significant investment in technology being made across the City as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme, and that the 23 BSF schools are able to make best use of technology to meet their aspirations for transforming educational provision. The Council’s Youth Engagement Project in 2010/11, and the recent Leicester Child Poverty Commission report also catalysed Digilit Leicester. At issue is what digital literacy means in practice for secondary schools, in terms of staff skills, practices, knowledge and confidence, and how that supports young people.

The project does not intend to provide a prescriptive list of skills, which all staff must master, or to reduce digital literacy to a discussion of tools. Instead, Digilit Leicester’s work pivots around a process of pedagogic self-evaluation through a toolkit. The framework is based on six themes: Finding, Evaluating and Organising; Creating and Sharing; Communication, Collaboration and Participation; e-Assessment and Feedback; E-Safety and Online Identity; CPD. However, in order to support teaching staff in making sense of their skills, practices and knowledge, the Framework incorporates four, differentiated levels: Entry; Core; Developer; Pioneer.

Digilit Leicester has achieved the following.

  1. A definition of digital literacy with staff in Leicester: “Digital Literacy refers to the skills, attitudes and knowledge required by educators to support learning in a digitally-rich world. To be digitally literate, educators must be able to utilise technology to enhance and transform classroom practices, and to enrich their own professional development and identity. The digitally literate educator will be able to think critically about why, how and when technology supplements learning and teaching.”
  2. The creation of a self-evaluation framework for educators. This aids staff in reflecting on their use of technologies to support teaching and learning. It has been worked on by 450 secondary school staff who have received individual feedback.
  3. The creation of a set-of targeted digital literacy resources.
  4. The production of an initial report, which includes information about the digital literacy framework and survey.
  5. A set of school reports for each BSF school with aggregated data that enable negotiated action plans. A City-wide report will follow in September 2013, which will highlight those pockets of excellence which exist across the City, in order both to share best practice and to identify where gaps exist.

This work has enabled a baseline for digital literacy to be drawn-up across the City. The next stage is to support innovation through targeted projects aimed at teachers, schools and the City working with DMU staff (e.g. in the Square Mile). This will then lead to a second iteration of the Framework survey, in order to see if the baseline has shifted. The Centre for Enhancing Learning through Technology team at DMU will be working to transfer the Framework into the University, to support innovation in professional development as part of the new DMU ELT programme-of-work.

The DigiLit Leicester project has received international acclaim, as one of five winners of the Reclaim Open Learning Innovation Challenge, an international contest sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, the Digital Media and Learning Hub, and MIT Media Lab. Josie has written about our award and what the project means.


On co-operation, accumulation and the University

On Tuesday I heard a series of speakers, including Rachel Wenstone from the NUS, Malcolm Ryan as the ALT Conference co-chair, and Alan Ford from the University of Nottingham, speak about educational institutions as spaces for partnership-working between staff and students. This was, in Wenstone’s argument, to be enacted in-part through staff “training”, in Ryan’s through encouraging the student to become a change-agent (although student’s have a rich-history of leading change, witness the current Chilean experience, student activism in Kenya and the almost mythical 1968), and in Ford’s through internationalisation agendas. What emerged might be categorised as forms of entrepreneurial educational activity designed to reassert the hegemony of stories of growth and work, which are in-turn linked to a belief that there is no alternative: to internationalisation agendas that simply act as spaces for commodity-dumping or demand-management, or labour arbitrage; to re-training academics so that they become more productive; to the fetishised student voice. 

This narrative is predicated on the idea that business-as-usual, in the form of economic growth, demands that we submit our lives to the reassertion of stable forms of capital accumulation, and that we submit our views of partnership, or the student voice, or cultural sensitivity, to the dictates of expanding markets. Moreover, this narrative, amplified by the Guardian Higher Education Network’s discussion on HE and economic growth, ignores the political and economic realities of the crisis tendency of the capitalist mode of production. It also ignores global responses from the labour movement to that crisis, in the form of the lessons that are emerging from the current Mexican educational protests, or the waves of education strikes that are planned in the UK, or the precepts based on content, form and structure of education that emerged from the International Student Movement’s Joint Statement. Critically, the latter argued that: “all educational entities/institutions should be democratically structured, meaning direct participation from below as a basis for decision making processes.” This is not the change-agency, or partnership-working that infects most educational discourse in the UK. 

It is, therefore, increasingly difficult to understand the idea of education or the University without an engagement with the immanence of crises in capitalist modes of production, and more especially the systemic inability of Capital to overcome the limits to growth and reproduce itself. Thus, as is argued in a piece on debt and misery in Endnotes:

The differentia specifica of capitalist “economic” crises — that people starve in spite of good harvests, and means of production lie idle in spite of a need for their products — is merely one moment of this larger crisis — the constant reproduction of a scarcity of jobs in the midst of an abundance of goods.

Thus, the dynamic of this crisis is played out through student debt as a gateway to future employability, through the entrepreneurial turn inside universities as wealth generators, through the commodification of research, through the subsumption of student and staff academic labour in the name of the reproduction of the capital-labour relation, and the increasing workload pressures and threat of precarious employment across universities. Yet we witness the ongoing inability of the system to reproduce the capital-labour relation, even in the face of the abolition of non-marketised spaces (free education, free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare and so on), in order to find new demand for commodities and the circuit of capital. These spaces open-up a terrain for accumulation that is based upon the enclosure of place and the separation of people from the land. But as Endnotes states, this separation

has to be perpetually repeated in order for capital and “free” labour to meet in the market time after time. On the one hand, capital requires, already present in the labour market, a mass of people lacking direct access to means of production, looking to exchange work for wages. On the other hand, it requires, already present in the commodity market, a mass of people who have already acquired wages, looking to exchange their money for goods.

This perpetual separation spreads to the virtual space, and enables universities, through MOOCs or distance learning, to open-up new markets, Moreover, through the commodification of digital infrastructures, it enables new services to be turned into products and sold or to be rented out. In this way, although movements claim to be for “open” or “free” on the web, without a democratic control of that infrastructure, and without a social or communal definition of its value, it simply becomes a new set of spaces to be enclosed for the creation of value, or the dictates of competition, or the extraction of rent.

This is witnessed in the drive for technological or technique-driven innovations that can maximise profitability, through an increase in relative surplus value. This, in itself, drives the co-option of universities as competing capitals, as businesses that have been reconfigured financially and technologically for valorisation and productive labour. The need to re-establish profitability and stable forms of accumulation across a global system means that labour needs to be disciplined, for instance through training or entrepreneurial productivity or the threat of precarious employment or a renegotiation of contracts and labour rights. This is part of the cycle of capital that subsumes productive power, in order to enable accumulation and the production of relative surplus value. The latter depends upon increases in productivity that are technologically-driven, through mechanisation, automation, the conversion of services into products, or the forced co-operation of labourers in any production process. However, technological innovation drives unemployment or an attrition on wages, as the labourer’s skills are instantiated inside the machine. As Marx noted in Volume 1 of Capital (p. 627) the expansion of the system beyond its limits is driven

by methods which lessen the number of workers employed in proportion to the increase in production. Modern industry’s whole form of motion therefore depends on the constant transformation of a part of the working population into unemployed or semi-employed hands.

As Endnotes argue:

For Marx it is in and through this process of expanded reproduction that the dynamic of capital manifests itself as its own limit, not through cycles of boom and bust but in a secular deterioration of its own conditions of accumulation.

Thus, the mechanics of accumulation, demand for and types of employment, technologically-mediated changes in production that drive efficiencies, are all interconected. As new sectors, like education, are subsumed inside the logic of capital accumulation and valorisation, and as universities are restructured as competing capitals, the focus becomes ways of maintaining the rate of profit. Thus, it becomes natural that universities, like any other capital, would wish to “economise on labour”, through productivity gains and technical changes.

One might see the rise in internationalisation, including the MOOC agenda, as part of this shift from labour-intensive to capital-intensive production. As Marx noted (Capital, vol. 1, pp. 622-3)

On the one hand… the additional capital formed in the course of further accumulation attracts fewer and fewer workers in proportion to its magnitude. On the other hand, old capital periodically reproduced with a new composition repels more and more of the workers formerly employed by it.

Not only do labour-saving technologies spread across the system, leading to a relative decline in the demand for labour, but they are irreversible, making the drive for constant, entrepreneurial reskilling critical for anyone who wishes to survive in the system. However, more generally the technological determinism that drives the general, relative decline in labour demand also threatens to outstrip capital accumulation. In Capital, Volume 3, Marx argues that over time “moral depreciation” affects the gains made by technological innovation where the new machine:

loses exchange-value, either by machines of the same sort being produced cheaper than it, or by better machines entering into competition with it. In both cases, be the machine ever so young and full of life, its value is no longer determined by the labour actually materialised in it, but by the labour-time requisite to reproduce either it or the better machine. It has, therefore, lost value more or less. The shorter the period taken to reproduce its total value, the less is the danger of moral depreciation; and the longer the working-day, the shorter is that period. When machinery is first introduced into an industry, new methods of reproducing it more cheaply follow blow upon blow, and so do improvements, that not only affect individual parts and details of the machine, but its entire build. It is, therefore, in the early days of the life of machinery that this special incentive to the prolongation of the working-day makes itself felt most acutely.

One outcome of this process as it is generalised is de-accumulation and a secular crisis, whereby both workers and capital fall out of contracting sectors or industries and are unable to find new sectors in which to insert themselves. The drive for reskilling and empoyability in education sits inside this critique, but is also indicative of the inability of more and more workers to reproduce themselves by selling their labour-power. The vast numbers of Ph.D.s without work, the move towards on-line learning, the increasing rates of youth unemployment across the globe, are all indicators of this secular crisis. We increasingly see an educated class of workers who are unable sell their labour-power at the rate they need to pay down their debts, to act as consumers, and to eat/clothe/shelter themselves (i.e. reproduce themselves), that is assuming they can actually find work at all. In Marx’s terms (see Chapter 25 of Volume 1 of Capital) we are seeing the proletarianisation of ever-increasing numbers of educated young people:

who produce[] and valorise[] “capital”, and [are] thrown onto the street as soon as [they] become [] superfluous to the need for valorisation.

One caveat to that is that it is through the policy activity of the State, in converting the process of education into a service for Capital (through training in basic commodity or leveraged skills, or in creating spaces for skills that can be commodified), and then into a commodity for valorisation (like the creation of courses that must be purchased by students using a debt-driven fee, or the commodification of research as knowledge transfer or incubation, or the sale of student data to publishers), that education is transformed. Critical in this transformation is the subsumption of the circuits of educational practices and knowledges inside the circuits of capital. Education (c.f. low-cost degrees, student-as-consumer or entrepreneur, or MOOCs) becomes a series of individually-purchasable commodities, which open-up new markets and mass markets, as costs fall and production increases [pace Endnotes].

The process of academic proletarianisation, in the reduction of academic labour to low-cost production and consumption of courses or educational commodities, or precarious employment, or debt-driven partnership between staff and students, is that there are few escape routes outside of the system. This is more than the politics of having to sell ones labour-power in a market, in order to reproduce oneself. It is governed by the fact that specific process innovations inside education as a business-sector, driven by technological innovation, tends to lead to unemployment as labour is automated. The promise, witnessed in the UK Government’s new obsession with the digital as the backbone of new jobs and employability, runs up against the historical reality that innovation drives an attack on labour costs including rising unemployment, and that setting surplus labour or capital “free” forces them to look to sectors with decreasing labour requirements themselves (e.g. nanotechnology, cloud technology, biotechnology are each incredibly mechanised).

In part these decreased labour requirements are forced by the generalisation of productivity gains and technological innovation globally across the system. As the system has automated manufacture, and global demand for manufacturing labour falls, there is less need for co-operation between labourers to be enforced. Thus, valorisation is based not upon co-operation, as Marx argued in Capital Volume 1, but upon collaboration between individuals acting as entrepreneurs in a global economy. However, automation leads to a diminished scale of accumulation, and inevitably to crisis. As Marx noted in Chapter 16, central to an understanding of crisis was the relationship between stable forms of accumulation, technological innovation and labour-efficiencies, and the production of relative surplus value:

The production of absolute surplus-value turns exclusively upon the length of the working-day; the production of relative surplus-value, revolutionises out and out the technical processes of labour, and the composition of society. It therefore presupposes a specific mode, the capitalist mode of production, a mode which, along with its methods, means, and conditions, arises and develops itself spontaneously on the foundation afforded by the formal subjection of labour to capital. In the course of this development, the formal subjection is replaced by the real subjection of labour to capital.

However, for Endnotes, in the current secular crisis of capitalism, even the real subsumption of sectors that were previously unproductive and not directly part of the valorisation process cannot halt the:

Unprecedented weakness of growth in the high-GDP countries over the 1997-2009 period, zero-growth in household income and employment over the whole cycle, the almost complete reliance on construction and household debt to maintain GDP — all are testament to the inability of surplus capital in its financial form to recombine with surplus labour and give rise to dynamic patterns of expanded reproduction.

One outcome is generalised proletarianisation. As they go on:

the trajectory of surplus capital distorts the trajectory of surplus labour described by Marx, and not only in the ways that we have already described. Most importantly, surplus capital built up in international money markets over the last 30 years has masked some of the tendencies to absolute immiseration, through the growing debt of working class households. This tendency, which has kept the bottom from falling out of global aggregate demand, has equally prevented any possibility of recovery, which would be achieved only through the “slaughtering of capital values” and “setting free of labour”. For while asset-price deflation may raise the possibility of a new investment boom, the devalorisation of labour-power will, in this context, only lead to increasing levels of consumer default and further financial breakdowns. Thus it is not only its capacity to generate employment, but the sustainability of the recovery itself which remains in question today… Any question of the absorption of this surplus humanity has been put to rest. It exists now only to be managed: segregated into prisons, marginalised in ghettos and camps, disciplined by the police, and annihilated by war.

In understanding the changes that are impacting the higher education sector, developing a critique of the relationships between technology and technological innovation, new managerialsm and financialisation, and the impact of structural weaknesses in global capitalism, is critical. Moreover, it is important to critique these changes historically and geographically, in order to understand how political economics shapes the space in which higher education policy and practice is recalibrated for capital accumulation and profitability. Educational innovations like staff-student partnerships, students-as-change-agents, open educational resources, MOOCs, bring your own device, personal learning networks etc. have to be seen in light of the relationships between: technological innovation; the competitive demand to overcome the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall; the disciplinary role of the integral State in shaping a space for further capital accumulation, against labour; the relationship between labour- and capital-intensity; and the subsumption of networks and network theory to the neoliberal project of accumulation and profitability.

Inside the University a critical question becomes what is academic labour for? Can it be reinscribed for co-operative practice, as against its subsumption inside mechanics for collaboration as neoliberal practices of enforced connection and coercian inside the market for valorisation. This is important where, as global student communiques remind us, co-operation is underpinned by a constant and immanent democratising of the organising principles and organisation of our society and our work. Collaboration inside the market can only offer a politics of subsumption in the search for outlets for profitable investment for supluses and new sources of demand.

At issue for academics and student is recovering the mechanisms through which their labour is made collaborative, as opposed to co-operative, and through which it is co-opted or coerced for valorisation. As Jonathan Davies reminds us capitalist modernity, and the reproduction of the capital-labour relation, is predicated upon control:

coercion is the immanent condition of consent inherent in capitalist modernity. As long as hegemony is partial and precarious, hierarchy can never retreat to the shadows. This dialectic plays out in the day-to-day politics of governance networks through the clash between connectionist ideology and roll-forward hierarchy or ‘governmentalisation’.

Moreover, Friedman reminds us that it is control that centres our (academic) labour in the process of valorisation, and in the subsumption of the processes and practices of education to services and commodities:

The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. Markets function and flourish only when property rights are secured and can be enforced, which, in turn, requires a political framework protected and backed by military power… the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

How and where might we contest the idea that education, and that the University, must reproduce forms of entrepreneurial activity that reassert the hegemony of stories of growth and work? Can this contestation be done inside the University? Or is the game up? Is the only possibility to fight for alternatives beyond formal institutions as we liberate knowledges, skills, technologies and practices from inside? Is it possible to do anything other than “re-appropriate (‘detonate’), ‘occupy’, these moments of space-time through ‘a new pedagogy of space and time’, which can be characterised as the production of critical knowledge in everyday life” (Neary and Amsler, p. 108)?


Educational technology and the crisis

I wrote this as I listened to a Jon Hopkins’ Boiler Room mix.

On Tuesday 10 September, I will be taking part in a conversation about technology-enhanced learning and the crisis. This emerged from some work at the Alpine Rendez-Vous 13 Crisis Forum earlier this year.

ONE: we need to talk about capitalism.

Michael Roberts’ work on the next recession has highlighted that: “the key indicators of sustained recovery in capitalism would be rising rates of profit, a sharp pick-up in business investment and substantial falls in unemployment”. Roberts discusses the structural, secular crisis of capitalism in a podcast here, and his analysis is amplified by Phoenix Capital’s view “that the forecast we’ve maintained for well over two years has been validated: the US is in a DE-pression and both Washington and the Federal Reserve have wasted trillions of Dollars. The reality is that what’s happening in the US today is not a cyclical recession, but a one in 100 year, secular economic shift.” On measures of unemployment, labour participation, and industrial production, Phoenix argue that “We’ve spent literally trillions of US Dollars on Stimulus and bailouts[,] and production is well below the pre-Crisis highs” with “the same percentage of the US population are working as in 1978.” For Phoenix this is a structural, secular depression, with an inability of actors in the system as a whole, rather than in sectors of the system, to re-establish stable forms of accumulation and profit. As Jehu notes over at Re: The People, technical, monetarist mechanisms like quantitative easing do nothing for growth “Since surplus value is only produced by living labor, the purchase of dead labor at a markup in the form of assets does nothing whatsoever to increase the mass of profits.” The same is true of the dead labour embedded in technologies that are imposed for efficiencies or productivity gains or for surveillance in the workplace or for the extraction of rents.

TWO: we need to talk about labour-power.

The reproduction of capitalist social relations is coming at a huge price for those who labour globally in the system, including students. Jehu states that monetary policy in the EU is simply “an attempt to obstruct the working class majorities of the member nations from democratic control over their economies.“ It is this democratic deficit that is apparent in the global North in the secular crisis of capital, as those with economic power seek to reinforce their position through mechanisms of indenture, like increased student debt (indenturing the futures of current and as yet unborn generations), the mechanics of accumulation through bailouts and quantitative easing, and the privatisation of previously socialised, historically-accrued value, like healthcare, resources like water, and education. Elsewhere, the horrors of labour in the global South go unreported in those markets they sustain. These realities emerge from the social relationships that are stitched into “our” technologies.

THREE: we need to talk about technology.

It is only against these political economic realities that the place of the University and of technology inside the University can be understood. Such an understanding demands that we critique technology as part of a totality of objectified human experience. We might start with Marx’s formulation in footnote 4 of chapter 15 of volume 1 of Capital that:

Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare  the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them.

Thus, technologies that are produced and consumed at the limits of “man’s modes” of recasting and reforming social relationships offer critical insights into how capital co-opts research and development inside educational institutions (schools, colleges, universities, MOOCs), in order to restructure education for value formation and accumulation. It is impossible to make sense of the use of technology inside education without political economic critique.

FOUR: we need to talk about technology and resistance.

In his twelfth thesis on the secular crisis, Harry Cleaver noted that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, across both the system a whole and for competing capitals in different sectors of the global economy, is countered by capital through attempts to insert technology or new techniques into production. He states that:

the rise in the organic composition of capital understood as occurring only with a capitalist reorganization of technology that raises productivity and imposes “more work”, [and] we can recognize that this always involves a change in the power relations between capital and the working class. Because the fundamental change involved in such reorganization of technology is the substitution of embodied dead labor (whether in the form of machines or information) for living labor, this tendentially undermines capital’s ability to organize its society through the imposition of work.

There is little sense or point in arguing that technology, as it is imposed inside capitalist social relations, can be emancipatory. It is designed: for personalisation that shapes entrepreneurial pedagogy or activity; or for the extraction of rents; or for an increase in relative surplus value by lowering labour costs or increasing productivity; or for workplace discipline (including of the unwaged labour of students); or for competition between universities as businesses. As Cleaver argues in his fourteenth thesis:

What we really need to do, is not merely to recognize the antagonistic subjects driving the “secular crisis” but to explore the “logics” of these emergent and diverse subjectivities. Such exploration can help us go beyond the appreciation of how they rupture capital to that of articulating and strengthening their development.

Revealing technology’s as a crack for the extraction of value, commodification and privatisation enables Capital’s expropriation of our social relationships for profit to be resisted and pushed-back against.

FIVE: we need to talk about recovering subjectivity.

Resistance and pushing-back are tied to the negation of the marketization of our lives and the negation of technological determinism. This is tied to our ability to fight for a rekindled subjectivity. We need to discover and strengthen how technology might be used to liberate subjectivity (knowledges, practices, organising principles, ways of knowing the world), and, in the words of Cleaver’s fifteenth thesis, to create spaces and places and alliances and allegiances for:

the fabrication and utilization of material connections and communications that destroy isolation and permit people to struggle in complementary ways.

Struggle is everything, and the struggle has to be collective. Not personalised. Not entrepreneurial. Not commodified. As Zibechi notes of the Zapatista Little Schools:

Collective work is one of the cements of autonomy, whose fruits usually spill into hospitals, clinics, primary and secondary education, in strengthening the municipalities and the good government juntas. Not much that has been constructed would be possible without the collective work, of men, women, boys, girls and the elderly.

For the point of education, in the face of this secular crisis, and of socio-political crisis, and of socio-environmental crisis, has to be the organising principles for collective work. It has to be for social solutions rather than for coercion and competition. It has to be for new forms of communal wealth rather than for enclosure and private profit. Thus, in the face of these dualities the point of educational technology has to be re-cast in terms of a critique of liberation.


Educational technology, academic labour and a pedagogy for class struggle

On Friday I’m presenting at the Critical Pedagogies: Equality and Diversity in a Changing Institution, Interdisciplinary Symposium at the University of Edinburgh.

There is a fuller paper here.

My slides are here.

I intend to make the following points.

ONE: on social control and the wage.

In an article from 2005 on the universities in the crisis, George Caffentzis argued that:

In the University two forms of unwaged labor for capital is [sic.] appropriated:

1. the development of new “forces of production” through scientific research and what Marx called “the power of knowledge objectified”;

2) the reproduction of labor power and so reproduction of the hierarchy of labor powers of different qualities (selection, division and stratification).

Thus capital appropriates science and education as a costless part of the cycle of its own reproduction.

Caffentzis notes that from the student protests of the 1960s in the USA, there had been a move to control universities through fiscal realism, but also by redefining the university for work, as a means of production. In this process, technology or the the power of knowledge objectified was critical across commodified disciplines. Thus, he argued:

Discipline over students is not accomplished with the old schoolmasterish ways (grading) but through connecting in a very explicit way work in the university with waged work: the job. The “new vocationalism” is not only to be found in the community colleges but it is also in the higher levels of the system where law, medicine, psychology, business administration, become the dominate departments. The social control jobs are used as social control: control through work if there ever was any!

Social control, validated through the subsumption of academic credibility to capitalist value, is critical in this process, and connects to what we now see as the drive for the entrepreneurial university or the student-as-entrepreneur. In this guise the student and the academic are more than consumers, they are willingly able to subsume their lives and their curricula to the creation of value. This includes the reinvention and reproduction of their selves inside the very processes that manufacture value. Caffendtzis argued:

What goes on at the university is work, namely schoolwork. It is work done to prepare to do more work. Its essence is selfdiscipline both in a specific and a general manner. The specific aspect of being a student is the learning of certain technical skills that can lead to greater productivity in specific jobs that require these skills. The general aspect of being a student, however, is infinitely more important: being self-regulating, self-controlled, etc.

Thus, as Nick Riemer argued about the ongoing strike at Sydney University:

vice-chancellors and their deputies now enthusiastically enact the values of competition, league-tables, performance indicators and similar managerial fetishes with all the fervour of recent converts.

Caffentzis connects this managerialism and techniques for control to the wageless labour of students. He argues that this unwaged nature veils such work as a form of “personal choice”, so that where it is refused/violated/plagiarised it is pathologised. This unwaged status, which is also linked to high levels of student debt that has to be paid down, matters because as unwaged workers students are used to reduce labour costs outside the University. This chart of the generational spread of student debt hammers home the point that the links between labour inside/beyond the University, the politics of the wage, and institutional restructuring need to be developed if an oppositional space is to be created. For Caffentzis, by being unwaged and depoliticised/separated from academic labour, “Capital can restructure the schools and increase intensity and productivity requirements at little cost.” This unwaged labour of students has pedagogic implications for academics and the definition of their disciplines through their teaching and their research. Is it possible to escape the discipline and reproduction of capital’s social relationships inside and beyond the University?

TWO: on academic labour.

In a recent blog post, Joss Winn has argued that we need to end the reification of the content of academic labour in its administrative, teaching and research functions, and instead “focus our critique on the form of academic labour”. He notes that in doing so:

we find that an academic contract or a non-academic contract refers to the same dual qualities of labour: commodity-producing concrete and abstract labour. By focusing on the form of labour, rather than its content, we can only critique it rather than reify it. What is there to reify when we uncover the capitalist mode of production and the inhuman role and purpose of labour?

To focus on the form of labour, rather than its content, unites all wage workers in solidarity rather than setting us against each other in terms of skills, experience, opportunity, achievements and recognition. Such a critique of ‘academic labour’ can only lead to the negation of academic labour, first conceptually, and then, through further critique and struggle, in practice towards a different form of social wealth, which is not driven by the imperative of the production of value at all costs.

One possibility for widening this space for solidarity may be through the connections between work inside/beyond the University and its unwaged/waged nature, and the subsumption of work inside the University for entrepreneurial, value-driven activity, outlined by Caffentzis. Is it possible to use the subsumption of the University inside the treadmill logic of capitalism and for the reproduction of its social relationships, to demonstrate solidarity between student-academic-worker, and the shared forms of exploitation? If so, is it possible to liberate the content of academic labour from the University and for social ends, inside new co-operative spaces? What might such liberation mean for pedagogic development and the place or critique of technology inside the University?

THREE: technology and the enclosure or control of academic labour.

Do academic collectives have a critical or ethical lens through which to critique the nature of the technologies that they use and re-purpose inside the University, beyond a limiting focus on enhancing the student experience? How might critical insight about the ways in which educational technologies enable the enclosure of academic labour for value formation and accumulation be catalysed? To what ends might such a critique be put?

Against a backdrop of the enclosure and marketization of activity and relationships inside the neoliberal university, educational technology is an important domain through which value-driven strategies play–out. This process is complex and is related to the ways in which some educational functions prove profitable and can be privatised. For example, some vocational training can be provided at low-cost using part-time or precariously employed, post-graduate lecturers engaged with the resources of on-line open education or distance learning. Publishers are able to leverage their market capitalisation and access to content and learning management systems to sell services into education. Private equity funds are engaged in the purchase and development of established learning management systems and related educational applications, in order to sell services into tertiary education.

Thus, technologies are insinuated inside a broader system of enclosure, which underpins accumulation by dispossession as a way in which surplus academic labour or rents can be extracted from individuals and institutions. In terms of surplus academic labour, academic management is able to bypass agreements on contracted staff teaching hours by moving more work on-line and then counting it as administration rather than formalised contact hours with students. Equally, the development of discourses around innovation and teaching excellence that are explicitly linked to work that is undertaken on-line catalyses a competitive environment between individual staff, and this in-turn acts as a lever to extract surplus labour. In this way, constant innovation can be normalised or routinized within the administrative load of academic staff, and performance can be monitored and disciplined. In terms of rents, for-profit technology providers are able to utilise and mine institutional data, especially where services like learning management systems and widgets or plug-ins are hosted for the institution, in order to develop and sell new services.

Such services, often related to personalisation and workflow efficiencies, are driven by institutional competitiveness in the HE market and the need to appear innovative and efficient in service delivery, and they enable the extraction of profits from fees on products that are contracted for. Technology has become a crack through which private corporations can enter the publically-funded, governed and regulated education sector, using public/private partnerships and outsourcing in service-delivery. Is it possible to struggle against control inside the curriculum?

FOUR: technology and the curriculum

In a recent Guardian comment piece, the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne made a clear connection between economic growth, the digital economy, the need for entrepreneurial digital skills and education. He stated:

it is vital for our economy that British students are once more taught how to program code and master the tools of the digital age.

From September 2014, the new national curriculum will require that students aged between five and 16 are given the skills they need to build apps and write computer programs. The curriculum will cover theoretical ideas and practical problems, software and hardware systems – and it certainly won’t be an easy ride. Students will be given a thorough understanding of logic and set theory, and they’ll need to master difficult concepts such as algorithms, programming languages and the architecture of the internet.

Osborne has also championed the Make Things Do Stuff campaign focused on making for the digital economy. This clearly connects us back into discourses around unwaged labour, and around the development and commodification of proprietary skills (those of entrepreneurs in this narrative), as well as those that are leveraged and more basic or interchangeable. It also highlights Winn’s point about the stratification or reification that emerges if we discuss academic labour as rarefied or special.

Using technology as a cipher for opening-up education for business imperatives, amounts to a form of what Newfield calls ‘subsidy capitalism’, in which ‘the public, directly or indirectly, does not participate in the investment, research, and development decisions that remake society year in and year out. It hands over resources and all decision rights at the same time.’ The new public management focus on business defining the curriculum, and by association recalibrating teacher or academic training and development, reflects Newfield’s point for the USA that:

There is a profound cultural limitation at work here: American leaders see the agencies responsible for social benefits as categorically less insightful than the financially self-interested private sector, even though the latter are focused entirely on their own advantage. As it is now, the future emerges in erratic bursts from the secret development operations at companies like Google… We are having an increasingly difficult time imagining a collective future that emerges from common activity.

This is the deeply politicised and increasingly enclosed world onto which educational technology and academic labour needs to be mapped, beyond simple economic utility. It is from inside this enclosed space that educational technology is interpreted and implemented by educational technologists, staff developers and technicians, and then adopted by practitioners and students. In taking a more meaningful stance, Feenberg (1999, p. 87) argues for

[a] critical theory of technology [that] can uncover that horizon, demystify the illusion of technical necessity, and expose the relativity of the prevailing technical choices.

At issue is reclaiming a politics of technology in education, against a determinist or essentialist position, or one that covets entrepreneurial digital skills. It is important, therefore, to develop examples of how technology impacts academic labour based on problems of performance, efficiency and scale, and to highlight how a broader, political, contextual analysis might be developed. This might be based on a revelation of the relationships between academic labour and: cloud computing; learning management systems like Blackboard; approaches to coding for kids; corporate publishers like Pearson; surveillance and monitoring technologies, including the relationship with PRISM; and technologies that emerge from the militarisation of the university.

FIVE: for a critical pedagogy?

Elsewhere I have written about the relationship between educators and consumers in the global North and the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is in-part impacted by the mining of Coltan. I wrote that:

Thus, for instance, the ‘Raspberry Pi‘ is connected to the desire to engage young people in programming through affordable, flexible, mobile devices that reveal the inner workings of the machine as it relates to programming. Yet, there has been little discussion of the component parts that make up the machinery, and how they are sourced. The machine uses a broadcom corporation bcm2835 SoC (system-on-a-chip). According to a company engagement report made by the Triodos ethical bank in 2011, broadcom was uneligible for ethical investment during that financial year because of their performance regarding conflict minerals, co-operation with repressive regimes and on human rights.

This position has been made more complex in a 2012 Triodos report, which argued that:

In 2012 Triodos reconsidered its position on the sourcing of columbite-tantalite, or coltan. This highly heat resistant mineral is capable of holding high electric charges and is therefore used in electronic devices, such as mobile phones and laptop computers. Coltan is frequently sourced from the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Since the 1990’s an extremely violent conflict has taken place in the DRC that has already claimed more than 5 million lives. Because of the role mining of coltan plays in financing this war, electrical equipment and ICT manufacturers that source coltan from the DRC have in the past been excluded from the investment universe. In recent years so-called conflict minerals (next to coltan these include tin, tungsten and gold) received increased attention from companies, and from investors and regulators. The recently adopted Dodd Frank act in the US, forces American listed companies to report on the use of ‘conflict minerals’ in their 2014 annual report. Yet a boycott is not always good, especially not for local populations. In other parts of Congo where the conflict is less prominent, the boycott led to increased poverty among local people. In reaction to this problem, the electronics industry initiated the promising Conflict Free Smelter Programme (CFS), covering many conflict minerals. We now include companies that source coltan from conflict-free parts of the DRC when they participate in the CFS program in the Triodos Sustainable Investment Universe. In 2012, Triodos Sustainability Research engaged with 36 companies on this issue. The replies of 25 companies satisfied our criteria and these companies are selected for sustainable investment. Nine companies are not selected and with two companies dialogue is pending.

Broadcom, which supplies the bcm2835 chipset for the Raspberry Pi has been listed by Triodos as follows.

Broadcom Corporation designs, develops, and supplies semiconductors for wired and wireless communications. Broadcom performs well on social issues. An important sustainability issue in the semiconductor industry is human rights, in particular related to the use of Coltan. Broadcom adheres to the EICC Code of Conduct requirements and has obtained declarations from its suppliers that any metals used in manufacturing Broadcom products are not derived from minerals mined or processed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which could fuel the civil war.

The Broadcom-Raspberry Pi case is important because it highlights how connections can be made between the content of academic labour in the definition of curricula, the technologically-mediated forms that such labour takes, and the realities of labour rights across the globe. As technologies like the Raspberry Pi gain ground in the classroom, there is a need to understand the ethics or humanity of their manufacture, and to frame these processes pedagogically and socially. This demands that the development of entrepreneurial digital skills and the deployment of entrepreneurial technologies or techniques are seen in terms of the processes that enable the reproduction of social relationships across global capitalism.

One outcome of such a critique framed pedagogically might be to open-up spaces for solidarity between those who consume or make in the global North, using technologies that are mined for and produced in the global South. What decisions are made by educators and universities about technologies and their socio-environmental, humanitarian, and political impacts? What power do students and academics have to affect and change the technological decisions inside and beyond the University? How does this (lack of) power affect the curriculum and its (un)democratic forms or pedagogies?

Thus, the Enough Project has developed the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative which

draws on the power of student leadership and activism to bring about peace in Congo. By encouraging university officials and stakeholders, both of whom are large purchasers of electronics and powerful spokespersons, to commit to measures that pressure electronics companies to responsibly invest in Congo’s minerals sector, students are voicing the demand for conflict-free products from Congo.

This role stretches beyond student activism to the ways in which the curriculum might be reimagined critically and socially, and in ways that take account of Winn’s call for the “negation of academic labour, first conceptually, and then, through further critique and struggle, in practice towards a different form of social wealth, which is not driven by the imperative of the production of value at all costs.” In defining the mechanisms through which educational technology is used to commodify and control academic labour, as well as in further stratifying forms of labour, and in distancing consumers in the global North from the realities of their consumption in labour rights across the globe, it becomes possible to push back where the curriculum and its pedagogic forms are reimagined at the level of society rather than the commodity.

As Cleaver argues in Reading Capital Politically, this demands that we restate and redefine this through class struggle across the whole of society with the focus of that struggle against Capital. For Cleaver, the possibility of struggle and emancipation lies in the autonomous organisations that exist within and between both the factory and the community, with a focus on the forms of labour and the exertion of “working class power… at the level of the social factory, politically recomposing the division between factory and community.” For critical educators deploying critical pedagogic responses, the question is how to use technology politically to recompose the realities of global struggles for emancipation, rather than for commodification. Overcoming global problems demands that universities do not simply outsource solutions, but that they act as public spaces for the co-operative and social use of technologies in the name of socially-useful knowledge.