Technology and co-operative practice against the neoliberal university

I’m presenting at the CAPPE Neoliberalism and Everyday Life conference on Thursday in Brighton, on Technology and co-operative practice against the neoliberal university. My slides are available here. I will be arguing three points.

ONE. Technology reveals an entrepreneurial reconfiguring of the idea of the University, which is increasingly witnessed in/catalysed by the policy/practice statements of politicians like David Willetts and Liam Byrne. The roll-out of innovations like the FEER amplify this narrative. However, critiques of the pedagogic pathology of entrepreneurialism are emerging (e.g. in Will Davies’ new book on the Limits of Neoliberalism), related to the expansion of the market and the use of debt to foreclose on the future. These critiques force us to question the ways in which entrepreneurial techniques are being used to recalibrate the University and the relationships between students/staff and students/debt, as higher education is restructured for value. Moreover, they reveal a deeper relationship between transnational frameworks, technology and higher education.

TWO. Technology is a crack through which we might analyse the interests that drive value production and accumulation, and their relation to power. Technology is one mechanism for managing the structural crisis of capitalism by opening the public sector to capital accumulation on a global terrain and across time. It also enables labour arbitrage to take place on that same scale, catalysed by transnational activist networks. Technological innovations might usefully be seen as responses to: lower levels of profitability across global capitalism; increasing global, educational consumption; and making previously marginal (and public) sectors of the economy explicitly productive. Technological innovation is therefore: a way of leveraging the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested; a mechanism for the redistribution of surplus value from businesses that produce commodities or services like universities to those that market them or that lend money to make academic labour productive; a way of revolutionising the means of production.

NOTE: it is important to see technological change is the result of social forces in struggle and the need to overcome the temporal and spatial barriers to accumulation. This needs to be seen in terms of the production and accumulation of value in order to reproduce power-over the world. This is the power of transnational capitalism over the objective material reality of life, and which is reinforced technologically and pedagogically. To argue for emancipation through technological innovation is to fetishise technology and to misunderstand how technology is shaped by the clash of social forces and the desire of capital to escape the barriers imposed by labour.

THREE. What is to be done? A re-imagination based on mass intellectuality and open co-operativism. Here I ask Inside the University, can educational technology be (ref)used politically to recompose the realities of global struggles for emancipation, rather than for value? Is there a co-operative crack through which “mass intellectuality” might be liberated or emerge? I look to some of the work that Joss Winn and I have done on open co-operativism and mass intellectuality to suggest the following discussion points for the co-operative, public university as an associational network.

  • Can the co-operative, public university be configured along the lines of the democratic governance and regulation of transnational worker co-operatives?
  • Can the co-operative, public university connect to the circuits of p2p production and distribution?
  • Can the co-operative, public university reflect the open, democratic, autonomous, social focus of co-operatives?
  • Can the co-operative, public university define a framework for the common ownership of products, assets and commodities?
  • Can the co-operative, public university represent a reclamation of public environments for the globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge (e.g. copyfarleft)?
  • Can the co-operative, public university help to connect a global set of educational commons rooted in critical pedagogy?
  • Can the co-operative, public university be based on Winn’s ideas of conversion, dissolution or creation, as a transitional and pedagogic project?

Building Sustainable Societies: sustainable education

In June I presented in Leeds at the Building Sustainable Societies, Sustainable Education conference. I spoke about Social sustainability, mass intellectuality and the idea of the University.

My slides and some resources are available on this blog-post.

However, the lovely Jack Palmer at Leeds has published notes from the day’s discussions, which are an interpretation of what I said, alongside the arguments of Adam Elliott-Cooper and Martin McQuillan.

Since then I have written about or contributed to discussions on two other areas that connect with these discussions.

The first are some more notes on the University as an anxiety machine, which connects to Kate Bowles’ writing on academic overwork, and Melonie Fullick’s work on academic productivity. I attempted to begin to theorise this in terms of circuits of productive research and the idea of the circulation of impact. In the face of the concrete anxiety of life, with cognitive dissonance reproduced instantaneously and continuously, does a University life make any sense?

The second area connects with Joss Winn’s writing on open co-operatives and the co-operative university. This led me to write about open co-operativism and mass intellectuality, perhaps as a way of pushing back, or refusing, the university as an anxiety machine.


on mutual values and open co-operativism

This is a long-read, at over 5,400 words. Why not read and listen to this lovely Frankie Knuckles’ Boiler Room set?

ONE. On open co-operatives

Joss Winn has been writing extensively about the idea of “open co-operatives” (here and here) with the argument leading towards:

the combination of  knowledge and experience from within the international P2P movement and that of the international co-operative movement, under the banner of ‘open co-operativism’ [as] a very positive move

However, Joss also makes critical points about the development of alternatives to capitalist society: first, that they emerge from inside the system of alienation based on the production, circulation and accumulation of value; second, that democratic governance in the name of post-capitalism demands that co-operatives are deeply and actively political organisations; third, that they are connected beyond value production in the abstract to concretised humane values that themselves need critique (for instance, reciprocity, honesty, solidarity); fourth, that they are potentially staging or transitional moments that point towards liberation from capitalist social relations, as post- (as opposed to anti-) capitalism. As Joss argues:

My concern with recognising the various stakeholders involved is that it reinforces the roles of capitalist society, rather than abolishing them. If there are producers and consumers, then there is a division of labour and, according to Marx and Engels at least, the result of the division of labour is private property.

Joss refers to Michael Bauwens’ statement on Why We Need a New Kind of Open Cooperatives for the P[eer]2P[eer] Age, in which he outlines four recommendations for the creation of open co-operatives, which are rooted in an emergent synthesis of the values and practices of the global P2P, FLOSS and Free Culture movement, with the values, principles and practices of the historic, global co-operative movement. The recommendations are:

  1. That coops need to be statutorily (internally) oriented towards the common good
  2. That coops need to have governance models including all stakeholders
  3. That coops need to actively co-produce the creation of immaterial and material commons
  4. That coops need to be organized socially and politically on a global basis, even as they produce locally.

For Joss, the critical issue is less the imposition of a model for circulation and distribution of co-operatively produced products, with surpluses re-invested in the co-operative or the Commons as an association of co-operatives, but more that:

What appears to be especially novel about Michel’s proposal for ‘open co-ops’ is that the principle and practice of ‘common ownership’ is extended to the product of the co-operative as well as the means of production.

This amplification of the process and circuit of production, alongside circulation, distribution and accumulation connects Joss’s focus to Marx’s work in Capital, Volume 2, on value emerging as a form of sociability (as capital) from the unity of three circuits: it is formed of moments of the circulation of money, of production, and of commodities.

If we combine all three forms, all premises of the process appear as its result, as a premise produced by it itself. Every element appears as a point of departure, of transit, and of return. The total process presents itself as the unity of the processes of production and circulation. The process of production becomes the mediator of the process of circulation and vice versa. All three circuits have the following in common: The self-expansion of value as the determining purpose, as the compelling motive. (Marx, 1885, Capital, Volume 2, Chapter 4.)

The issue here, and it is a critical issue for open co-operatives that are predicated on the circulation of immaterial labour, is that whilst money and commodities are mobile (and intellectual or cognitive services or commodities are especially so), production that is situated in concrete reality, is less mobile, and needs to be corralled or kettled or coerced. As David Harvey shows, the money form is more visible and is prioritised because it is the primary means through which surplus value is realised. Accumulated value, and the power that accompanies it, means that other forms of human or humane value in the production of commodities are marginalised. The creation of value recalibrates the world, and the duality of the means of production and the product itself needs to be addressed in terms of value, or an alternative form of sociability.

TWO. On sustaining the Commons

The earlier work of Bauwens and Iacomella on sustaining the Commons through co-operative, pedagogical projects that might reveal alternatives: first, to the idea of endless growth and material abundance linked to debt; second, to the idea of immaterial scarcity framed by, for example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership/the Transatlantic Trade and Investments Partnership and global intellectual property law; and third, to the pseudo-abundance that encloses and destroys the biosphere. Bauwens and Iacomella argue for a global alliance, between movements based on open and copyfarleft, ecology and social justice, and global emancipation, which are then rooted in an interrelationship between State, market and peer/solidarity economies. This is clearly a transitional project, aimed at developing the idea of the Commons as a counter-hegemony to market fundamentalism, and it is rooted in ideas of human sociability and humane values.

However, here we run up against Cumbers’ argument that ‘there needs to be a more nuanced appreciation of the dynamic nature of spatial organization and governance under advanced capitalism…’ (p. 156), and develop deeper critiques of the relationships between individuals, peers, co-operatives, the market, the Commons and the State. This reminds me that a long time ago I drew down five lessons that emerged from the politics of the Commons in early modern Britain as they might apply to the idea of the educational commons.

FIRST: we need to discuss property and power in the real/virtual spaces inside which we actually operate. The fundamental issue is about how one can develop an understanding of deeper, socio-political structures that inform our debates over agency, participation, association and motivation. What presuppositions about property and liberty are folded into our assumptions?

SECOND: mobility and motivation. One of the problems with analysing the structures of and relationships between Commons/enclosure and agency relates to the geography of specific spaces. Historically, in looking at the Commons there has been a tendency to introduce a bias in favour of those who were relatively immobile and whose behaviour it has therefore been easier to trace. This also creates a tendency to look at agency as emerging from a particular place or its immediate hinterland, and this ignores the possibility of a more divergent set of influences on an individual and her actions in enclosed or common spaces.

THIRD: the complexity of space and time, and the depth of social relationships. The key to our understanding of the relationships between structural forms and individuals in any context lies in reconstructing the depth/production of social ties.

FOURTH: the relationships between Common/enclosed space and time. We might wish to look at the inter-relationships between the networked Commons and enclosed or proprietary software/networks, and institutional networks, in a more nuanced way. How is social capital or power developed and applied differentially inside and across open or closed networks, and who has the power to define how open or enclosed those networks and their resources might become?

FIFTH: on power and autonomy. In making sense of the Commons/enclosure inside education, it may be that local socio-economies and local customs/social relationships need to be related to the political structures/technologies that coerce, co-opt or give consent to specific forms of action.

THREE: On governance and mutualism

At issue is the governance of open co-operatives, and whether they might form self-organising associated labour, which is able to create sustainable forms of opposition and alternative. Joss quotes Rigi’s argument that this is impossible because:

To sum up the cooperative is implicated in the capitalist mechanism of exploitation either as an exploited or exploiting party in the both processes of the formation of values and that of the production prices of the commodities they produce. A single commodity is a social interface (relation) in a double sense. On the one hand as a value bearing entity it is an interface between all labour that produces that type of commodity. And on the other, as a price bearing entity it is an interface between all constituent elements of the total social capital, i.e. the capitalist economy as a whole. No magic of cooperation can change these realities. The only way for cooperatives to break with the logic of capital is to break with the market, i.e. not to produce commodities. (Jakob Rigi 2014: 395)

Thus, we see the expansion of social enterprise and community interest companies as a favoured alternative form of local organisation in the United Kingdom, including governance structures that have asset locks, forced to exist in (a)symmetries of value. We also see the development of, for example football supporters trusts, as mutual industrial and provident societies (IPS) that are “Co-operative societies [] run for the mutual benefit of their members, with any surplus usually being ploughed back into the organisation to provide better services and facilities.” Here share capital exists, even in the notionally not-for-profit IPS sector. Whilst these are not ordinarily made up of equity shares (and might only be redeemed at face value), profits and losses are still made. Whilst these may be the a common treasury, these mutual forms are still locked into ideas of private property and finance capital/capital adequacy that emerge from inside capitalism.

However, even those football supporters’ trusts that own clubs have to engage with a competitive, transnational market for players and at times support, and have to compete inside league structures in which money is a key motive force. The value of the co-operative as a democratic, political structure always runs up against the compulsion to find an organisational and productive structure that enables the club to be competitive. Thus FC United of Manchester operates as an IPS that generates capital to function as a club through community shares and membership rooted in money/annual fees. However much is paid, the fee then entitles an individual member to one share in the club and is entitled one vote at meetings. There is also a board elected from the membership. The club’s manifesto includes the following core principles:

  • The Board will be democratically elected by its members
  • Decisions taken by the membership will be decided on a one member, one vote basis
  • The club will develop strong links with the local community and strive to be accessible to all, discriminating against none
  • The club will endeavour to make admission prices as affordable as possible, to as wide a constituency as possible
  • The club will encourage young, local participation—playing and supporting—whenever possible
  • The Board will strive wherever possible to avoid outright commercialism
  • The club will remain a non-profit organisation

However, the club has to operate inside a local governmental structure, which supported the application for a new ground in Moston with a grant, alongside operating in a competitive football league structure that itself demands and structures forms of investment, and inside the structuring realities of wage-labour for its footballing staff and two full-time employees. This has symmetries with the co-option of the idea of co-operatives in the Global North, as productive and efficient. Here as federal, political strategies or as specific worker-owned co-operatives the idea of the co-operative is a means of organisational development designed as a means to leverage productivity. As David Harvey notes: “How labor power and means of production are brought together depends upon the technological and organizational forms available to capitalists in a given time and place. The history of capitalism has been deeply affected by the ways in which productivity gains are achieved.”

The complexity of the relationships between co-operatives or mutually-structured community projects connects to the realities of co-operative governance and politics that emerge from Rigi’s analysis: “These cooperatives must be revolutionary, second, they must break with the market as much as they can.” Joss Winn uses this as a springboard for cautioning against the fetishisation of (open) co-operatives as anti/post-capitalist, through reference to Kasmir’s study of Mondragon, the world’s largest co-operative.

It’s failings as a co-operative, [Kasmir] argues, is because of its disconnect with working-class objectives, such that workers “do not consider the firms theirs in any meaningful way.” Kasmir (1996) argues that one of the lessons we can learn from Mondragon is that of the “importance of politics, the necessary role of organization, and the continuing value of syndicates and unions for transforming the workplace.” (pp. 199-200) Members of a worker co-operative must regularly question how their mutual work forms a critical, social project. “If workplace democracy is to be genuine, it seems that it must be premised on activism.” (p. 199)

FOUR: The conditions of austerity

However, this workplace democracy is rooted inside a politics of austerity, and this conditions what control of the means of production actually looks like in practice, and what can actually be produced and circulated. The global terrain on which co-operative production takes place is framed by volatility, precarity and crisis:

Just a bunch of numbers Reuters published today. Read and weep. While remembering that this spring, after that horrible winter that threw the recovery so terribly off course, would see pent-up demand go crazy. That after the Q1 GDP growth, which has by now been revised to -2% after initially having been predicted to be in the 3%+ range, Q2 would certainly, according to pundits, economists and government agencies, top 3%, if not more. We already know for a fact that’s not going to happen. Unless the US grows faster in June than China did in its heyday. The American economy is getting very seriously hammered, and nobody with access to all the right channels will ever let you know about it other than in a long range rear view mirror where things always look smaller than they appear.

once you realize that it must crash no matter what, and that you are really nothing but an animal caged by the system, what should you choose? I think perhaps it’s a choice between your weaknesses and your strengths. Though I know it’s not nearly as simple as that, because the crash will erase much of what we hold dear, for whatever reason we do that. It’s probably good to acknowledge that the choice is not between crash or no crash, but between weakness and strength, and that a crash is a system fixing itself back to health, something that has a lot of positive connotations, even if that is the only positive feature it has. Wait, there’s one other: our children will see a lot of the debts they are now being born with, disappear. But it will come at an unprecedented price. (The Automatic Earth, 17 June 2014.)

At the moment the price is being leveraged through a global asset transfer, the removal of public/citizen rights in terms of social services, casualization, precarious employment, mass youth unemployment, and so on. It is also being leveraged in terms of debt that defines the global production of value, and against which co-operative financing, regulation and governance need to be discussed.

What would you say if I told you that Americans are nearly $60 trillion in debt? When you total up all forms of debt including government debt, business debt, mortgage debt and consumer debt, we are $59.4 trillion in debt. That is an amount of money so large that it is difficult to describe it with words. And most of this debt has been accumulated in recent decades. If you go back 40 years ago, total debt in America was sitting at about $2.2 trillion. Somehow over the past four decades we have allowed the total amount of debt in the United States to get approximately 27 times larger.

Total consumer credit in the U.S. has risen by 22% over the past three years alone, 56% of all Americans have a subprime credit rating, 52% of Americans cannot even afford the house that they are living in. There is more than $1.2 trillion dollars of student loan debt, $124 billion dollars of which is more than 90 days delinquent. Only 36% of all Americans under the age of 35 own a home, a new record. US national debt is $17.5 trillion dollars. Almost all of that debt has been accumulated over the past 40 years. In fact, 40 years ago it was less than half a trillion dollars. (Michael Snyder, infowars.com, 16 June 2014)

Economists at ING found that debt in developed economies amounted to $157 trillion, or 376% of GDP. Emerging-market debt totaled $66.3 trillion at the end of last year, or 224% of GDP. The $223.3 trillion in total global debt includes public-sector debt of $55.7 trillion, financial-sector debt of $75.3 trillion and household or corporate debt of $92.3 trillion. (The figures exclude China’s shadow finance and off-balance-sheet financing.) Per-capita indebtedness is still just $11,621 in emerging economies (and rises to $12,808 if you exclude the two largest populations, China and India). For developed economies, it’s $170,401. The U.S. alone has total per-capita indebtedness of $176,833, including all public and private debt. (Sudeep Reddy, Wall Street Journal, 11 May 2013)

If people do get work, it is mostly in sectors that pay less than their previous job: like retail or the health sector. Or they are working on ‘zero-hours’ contracts i..e paid only for each our worked and on call in the style of casual labour of the 19th century.  Wage growth is rising at only 2% a year, hardly above inflation and tax. So disposable incomes are more or less stagnant for the majority. And if you do not have a college degree or professional qualification, it is increasingly hard to get a decent job. Employment for people with a bachelor’s degree or more has actually been growing since the crisis in 2008. It never stopped growing. But work for those with a high school degree or less has been shrinking and has only just begun to rebound. It has been a jobless recovery for the majority.

Still, the employment situation in the US is gradually improving as the unemployed are rehired at lower rates of pay or those new to the jobs market get ‘starter’ pay or ‘no-pay intern’ jobs. People are being ‘priced’ into jobs.

In the US, profits fell in the first quarter of this year.  If this decline becomes a trend, then history shows that investment will start to fall about one year or so later.  And once investment starts to contract, a recession will follow.  But it is too early to reach that conclusion. (Michael Roberts, The Next Recession, 8 June 2014)

Critically, any overcoming has to happen in the face of the politics of austerity and dispossession, and more long-term, in the face of the crisis of accumulation. However, overcoming also has to happen inside the structuring realities of commodity capital, through which co-operatives will have to vie for a place in the market, and this makes them vulnerable to crises related to futures-trading, or access to means of production, or to overproduction, or to market-saturation, or to an inability to access credit markets, or to more general, societal access to debt. Catalysing new systems of production or organisational development or technological innovation inside a market rooted in value production leaves co-operatives at risk. Pace Marx in Volume 2 of Capital, the commodity is critical here, and not simply ownership of the means of production, because the commodity is the social form of equivalence. The circuit of commodities is the form of motion common to all capitals, including open co-operatives that are operating fully or partially inside the market. The commodity, even when produced co-operatively (for example in a factory, workshop, sweatshop or commune) is social only in that it forms the total social capital of the capitalist class, as it is reproducing itself. Moreover, the movement of individual capitals (including co-operatives) is conditioned by its relationship to other capitals. This is a material relation underscored by the commodity, competition, surplus value, risk and the rate of profit.

FIVE: The real movement which abolishes the present state of things

Joss makes this point more fully in arguing that inside allegedly partial market conditions, a focus on democratic sharing or distribution, rather than on abolishing the production of surplus value, is likely to lead to co-option rather than transition. He quotes Meretz’s critique of copyfarleft, where he concludes:

It is simply not sufficient to achieve workers’ control over the means of production if they go on being used in the same mode of operating. Production is not a neutral issue, seemingly adaptable for different purposes at will, but the production by separate private labour is necessarily commodity production, where social mediation only occurs post facto through the comparison of values – with all the consequences of this – from the market to ecological disaster.

For Joss, a focus on humane values, namely reciprocity, is flawed because “that is the logic of (imposed) scarcity. Non-reciprocity is the logic of abundance…. The aim should be to altogether overcome the compulsion of reciprocity, which is the logic of poverty, protected by law.

In modern society, where the conditions of life are private property, needs are separated from capacities. A state of abundance would alter this. Needs and capacities would come together, and close off the space between them. In modern society, this space is filled by the dense structures of private property-political order and the law of labour: in a state of abundance they would have no place. If the productive capacities already deployed were oriented towards need, necessary labour would be reduced to a minimum, so that nothing would stand between men and what they need to live. Money and the law of labour would lose their force, and, as its foundations crumbled, the political state would wither away. The state of abundance is not a Utopian vision but the real possibility of conditions already in existence. (Kay and Mott 1982)

As I argue elsewhere:

What might be required then is an overcoming of the alienation imposed by and emerging from capitalist work in its abstract and concrete forms, and through its fetishisation of technological solutions to crises, be they political, financial, societal or environmental in appearance. The attempt to overcome crises borne of competition by renewing personal or social or transnational values that are themselves fashioned inside that competitive dynamic is impossible. A social revolution of life cannot be delivered through a revolution of social (re-)production that is rooted in value production and labour, or through the recuperation of concrete labour or use-value as an alleged antidote to the abstract capitalist world. As the natural world is subsumed and reproduced inside it, the ecology of capitalism reveals both the concrete and the abstract as alienating.

This is where Joss’s reminders of the essential work of Moishe Postone around the abolition of labour as a structuring characteristic of capitalism is important.

Traditional Marxism had already become anachronistic in a variety of ways in the 20th century. It was unable to provide a fundamental critique of the forms of state capitalism referred to as “actually existing socialism.” Moreover, its understanding of emancipation appeared increasingly anachronistic, viewed from the constituted aspirations, needs, and motivating impulses that became expressed in the last third of 20thcentury by the so-called “new social movements.” Whereas traditional Marxism tended to affirm proletarian labor and, hence, the structure of labor that developed historically, as a dimension of capital’s development, the new social movements expressed a critique of that structure of labor, if at times in an underdeveloped and inchoate form. I argue that Marx’s analysis is one that points beyond the existing structure of labor.

Moreover, this is important because as William Robinson notes, struggles against transnational capitalism are about the points of production and reproduction of our society:

All of this represents an intensified penetration of global capital around major resources. If all national economies have been reorganized and functionally integrated as component elements of a new global capitalist economy and if all peoples experience heightened dependency on the larger global system for their very social reproduction, then I do not believe that it is viable to propose individual delinking or suggest that you can simply break off from global capitalism and create a post-capitalist alternative. Global capital has local representation everywhere and it translates into local pressure within each state in favor of global capital.

[Thus,] a permanent mobilization from below that forces the state to deepen its transformative project “at home” and its counterhegemonic transnational project “abroad” is so crucial.

Increasingly, organizing the working class means organizing informal sector workers. It means shifting from an exclusive focus on the point of production to a focus on both the point of production and reproduction. That’s what the piqueteros do. They say that if you’re unemployed you can’t organize into trade unions and withhold your labour. If you’re structurally unemployed you have to disrupt the daily functioning of the system. Similarly, if you’re an informal sector worker you can’t make demands on capital in the same way as a formal sector worker. So increasingly, the type of working class organization we need must address both production and reproduction – social movement unionism, for instance, linking neighborhood struggles to formal worker centers and so forth. We have to recognise this and work to deepen the transnational character of these struggles across the world.

SIX: On values

In these struggles I wonder about the relationship between value production and the production of humane values. This is on my mind a lot, in spite of my knowing that sociability, solidarity, fidelity, courage, hope, whatever, are produced and reproduced inside-and-against private property and value. I am reminded that Anselm Jappe wrote:

The difficulty of living in a society dominated by value necessarily leads to the creation of all sorts of ideologies to explain the suffering caused by such a society and that enable the subjects of labour to project onto others the qualities that they are forced to expel from themselves (e.g., “laziness,” “emotions”). (p. 11)

But that in spite of this historically, material formation of values:

even value itself is not a “total” structure. It is “totalitarian” in the sense that it aspires to turn everything into a commodity. But it will never be able to because such a society would be completely unliveable (there would no longer, for example, be friendship, love, the bringing up of children, etc.). The necessity for value to expand pushes it towards destroying the entire concrete world and at every level, economic, environmental, social and cultural. The critique of value does not only foresee an economic crisis of unprecedented dimensions but also the end of an entire “civilisation” (if one can call it that). Even so, human life has not always been based on value, money and labour, even if it seems that some kind of fetishism has existed everywhere. (p. 12)

I wonder then if it is possible to realise forms of open co-operativism borne in an abundance of solidarity, rather than in the distribution and consumption borne in the scarcity of reciprocity? I wonder if it is possible to connect the ideas of mass intellectuality and open co-operativism to force the state to deepen its transformative project “at home” and its counterhegemonic transnational project “abroad”. Here Neary and Amsler’s focus on “radical subjectivity”, emerging from occupy as a pedagogic project feels important.

radical subjectivity as being located not in use value, but in the production of new forms of critical knowledge in everyday life, or practical reflexivity. Critical practical knowledge is formed from the same social substance as ‘anti-value in motion’: just as time inheres in space, use value inheres in exchange value, so to does theory inhere in practice as critical reflexivity or living knowledge, including life itself (p. 120)

The crisis – of higher education, and the university, as part of the general and historical crisis of capitalism – has opened up increasingly promising spaces for the radical critique of this system and of the violences of abstraction upon which it depends. Occupy revitalises hope in the power of ideas through the power of doing, and demonstrates how it looks and feels to reappropriate the times, spaces and sensibilities that are necessary for engaging in critical practical reflexivity about the conditions and future of our own existence. (p. 127)

Amsler’s (2013) call for ‘a little more of a politicised relation to truth in affairs of education, knowledge and academic practice’ is a form of bell hooks’ (1994) self-actualisation: a capacity to live more fully and deeply. This is a humane capacity that is also the capability to liberate time for solidarity actions and activities, rather than for exchange. Here, radical subjectivity is not driven by a commodity-valuation based on the domination of abstract time. Rather it is based on personal and social relations that dissolve the barriers between work and life, and which enable co-operators to form a pedagogical alliance for the collective, socially-negotiated overcoming of capital’s power-over life. This alliance, revealed inside-and-against abstract time, is the beginning and end of a pedagogical struggle for free time, and against abstract processes for value creation and accumulation.

Whether a focus on mass intellectuality and open co-operativism offers a potential transitional moment in the abolition of academic labour, is a moot point. However, the re-conceptualisation of concrete and abstract labour through mass intellectuality and open co-operativism, forces us to reflect on our relationship to the Commons, the State and its institutions, and civil society. These relationships are critical in trying to define a post-capitalism as a pedagogical, societal moment that is historically-rooted and material in nature. This process demands the negation of the reified nature of academic labour, so that social values rather than value are at the core of how society is reproduced. Here Amsler’s focus on fearlessness connects to Cleaver’s (1993) call for

[a] politics of alliance against capital… not only to accelerate the circulation of struggle from sector to sector of the class, but to do so in such a manner as to build a post-capitalist politics of difference without antagonism.

A starting point is the definition of a pedagogical moment that enables the characteristics that flow into and out of co-operative labour, in terms of value, money and the commodity, to be defined in another image of society and social production. Such a pedagogical moment needs to point towards the creation of open, participatory publics, potentially inside open co-operatives, in order to underpin the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.

In-part, FC United of Manchester emerged from the refusals of some Manchester United FC supporters to countenance the domination of hedge funds and leveraged debt over their football club. Issues of finance, club culture, regulation and governance collapsed in the space/time of this pedagogic moment, and made possible a reflection and refraction of alternative, mutual material and historical practices:

The material theft of a Manchester institution, forcibly taken from the people of Manchester, was the tip of a pyramid of destruction, with changing kick off times for the benefit of television, soulless all-seater stadia full of ‘new’ supporters intent to sit back and watch rather than partake in the occasion, heavy handed stewarding and ridiculously priced tickets propping it all up.

Critics of the idea argued that if supporters were disgruntled with the Premiership then why didn’t they go and support other local cash-strapped clubs instead of setting up their own? But that wouldn’t have been theirs would it? It wouldn’t have been United and it wouldn’t have been right to takeover another club after they had just been taken over themselves. Nor could they drift off in various directions and be lost to each other and maybe football forever. They wanted to maintain the momentum of the protest, to stick together, to sing United songs, to reminisce and bring back the good bits of the good old days. They wanted Our Club, Our Rules and they got just that, a member owned democratic, not-for-profit organisation created by Manchester United fans. A club accessible to all of the Greater Manchester community, dedicated to encouraging participation of youth whether it be playing or supporting and to providing affordable football for all.

Interestingly, the then manager of Manchester United FC, Sir Alex Ferguson argued:

I’m sorry about that. It is a bit sad that part, but I wonder just how big a United supporter they are. They seem to me to be promoting or projecting themselves a wee bit rather than saying `at the end of the day the club have made a decision, we’ll stick by them.’ It’s more about them than us.

There is a lesson in there somewhere.


on the crisis of value, alienation and pedagogical moments

Our concrete/abstract alienation

In his Education After Auschwitz, Adorno wrote (p. 6) that

People who blindly slot themselves into the collective already make themselves into something like inert material, extinguish themselves as self-determined beings. With this comes the willingness to treat others as an amorphous mass. I called those who behave in this way “the manipulative character” in the Authoritarian Personality… He does not for one second think or wish that the world were any different than it is, he is obsessed by the desire of doing things, indifferent to the content of such action. He makes a cult of action, activity, of so-called efficiency as such which reappears in the advertising image of the active person… I would call it the type of reified consciousness. People of such a nature have, as it were, assimilated themselves to things. And then, when possible, they assimilate others to things.

Adorno goes on to state that in this process of reification, our humanity and our search for a dignified life are lost. This is made worse because we are unable to discuss the analytical characteristics of that life, and instead we leave ourselves with descriptions of how we might exist. So, for example, rather than discussing how we produce our society in the face of economic or environmental crises, we fetishise technology as a means of recuperating value production and overcoming the realities of climate change. Here the veil of technology determines the limits of our engagement with social reproduction as the use and exchange of immateriality, without our analysis of the ways in which that immateriality is founded inside the living death of capitalist work. For Adorno (p. 8) this means that we are unable to see:

where the threshold lies between a rational relationship to technology and the over-valuation that finally leads to the point where one who cleverly devises a train system that brings the victims to Auschwitz as quickly and smoothly as possible forgets about what happens to them there.

We are pedagogically and technologically unable to critique the societal order that produces and reproduces what Adorno calls (p. 9) “the condition for disaster”, because our roles inside capitalism are formed of mediated relationships, like teacher and student that appear to be our really existing lifeworld. The only way around this is for education to transform itself openly into sociology. “[I]t must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.” (Adorno, p. 10)

Postone, in his Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to “Holocaust”, pushes this argument about reification by way of demonstrating the interrelationships and interplay between the concrete and the abstract, as they are formed of and reproduce capitalist society. He argues that crises or catastrophes or atrocities are internalised and normalised (p. 100):

The goal was “normalcy” at all costs – one to be achieved without dealing with the past. The strong identification with that past was not overcome, but simply buried beneath a surfeit of Volkswagens… A kind of collective somnabulism resulted, with the majority of the population sleep-walking its way through the Cold War, the “economic miracle,” the reemergence of politics with the student revolt, repressing the past.

For Postone, it is critical that in dealing with and making sense of the collapse of the past into the present the future is not foreclosed. In making sense, the qualitative specificity of the particular crisis “requires a much more concretized mediation in order to even approach its understanding.” (p. 106)

Thus, Postone argues that in understanding the Holocaust and in refusing its reproduction, the interplay between the abstract world and its concrete realisation is fundamental. Here there is a flow between the concrete and the abstract so that each emerges from the other, and the intellectual problem is to reveal this emergence because “the abstract domination of capital… caught people up in a web of dynamic forces they could not understand” (p. 106). Thus:

What is required, then, is an approach which allows for a distinction between what modern capitalism is and the way it appears, between its essence and appearance. The concept “modern” does not allow for such a distinction. These considerations lead us to Marx’s concept of the fetish, the strategic intent of which was to provide a social and historical theory of knowledge grounded in the difference between the essence of capitalist social relations and their manifest form. (p. 108)

Critical here is finding a means of decoding how relations of production and the commodities that are produced socially, are externalised and take the form of fetishes. Moreover, they are at once both abstract and concrete, with each informing the production and reproduction of the other. In Postone’s argument this appears on the surface of society to be a set of relationships that are mediated and abstracted by money (as a representation of value) and by the law. For many, this then feels less meaningful or truthful than the concrete form of labour or even of work. It thus becomes difficult to move beyond the alienation of both concrete and abstract labour because neither can be decoded, and the result is that our reality is subsumed.

One aspect of the fetish, then, is that capitalist social relations do not appear as such and, moreover, present themselves antinomically, as the opposition of the abstract and concrete. Because, additionally, both sides of the antinomy are objectified, each appears to be quasi-natural: the abstract dimension appears in the form of “objective,”” natural” laws; the concrete dimension appears as pure “thingly” nature. The structure of alienated social relations which characterize capitalism has the form of a quasi-natural antinomy in which the social and historical do not appear. (p. 109)

This is the dialectical relation between the abstract and the concrete, which is both historical and material. Without an analysis of the ways that both concrete and abstract labour are manifest in capitalist social relations and generative of value, there is no way that crises can be overcome. Thus, in the Grundrisse, Marx argues:

The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception. … the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought… even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations.

As Marx notes in Capital Volume 1 “concrete labour becomes, therefore, the medium for expressing abstract human labour.” This is critical for Postone in understanding how the production of relative surplus value, and the relationships between concrete and abstract in that capitalist production process, make environmental degradation inevitable.

Leaving aside considerations of possible limits or barriers to capital accumulation, one consequence implied by this particular dynamic — which yields increases in material wealth far greater than those in surplus value — is the accelerating destruction of the natural environment. According to Marx, as a result of the relationship among productivity, material wealth, and surplus value, the ongoing expansion of the latter increasingly has deleterious consequences for nature as well as for humans. (Postone, Time, Labour and Social Domination, p. 311)

 

The pattern I have outlined suggests that, in the society in which the commodity is totalized, there is an underlying tension between ecological considerations and the imperatives of value as the form of wealth and social mediation. It implies further that any attempt to respond fundamentally, within the framework of capitalist society, to growing environmental destruction by restraining this society’s mode of expansion would probably be ineffective on a long-term basis — not only because of the interests of the capitalists or state managers, but because failure to expand surplus value would indeed result in severe economic difficulties with great social costs. In Marx’s analysis, the necessary accumulation of capital and the creation of capitalist society’s wealth are intrinsically related. Moreover [...] because labor is determined as a necessary means of individual reproduction in capitalist society, wage laborers remain dependent on capital’s “growth,” even when the consequences of their labor, ecological and otherwise, are detrimental to themselves and to others. The tension between the exigencies of the commodity form and ecological requirements becomes more severe as productivity increases and, particularly during economic crises and periods of high unemployment, poses a severe dilemma. This dilemma and the tension in which it is rooted are immanent to capitalism: their ultimate resolution will be hindered so long as value remains the determining form of social wealth. (Postone, Time, Labour and Social Domination, p. 313)

However, the festishisation of the concrete, or of the use-value of commodities and the production process does not enable us to manage crises, either of barriers to capitalist accumulation or environmental degradation or societal/political atrocities. For Postone, “concrete labor itself incorporates and is materially formed by capitalist social relations” (p. 110, Anti-Semitism). In fact, in discussing the degradation of the natural world, the naturalisation of concrete labour underscores a kind of “biologized” fetishisation, based on the idea of artisanal or organic production that stands against “the manifest form of its abstract dimension: finance and interest capital” (p. 110, Anti-Semitism). This is in opposition to the deep interrelationships between the concrete and abstract dimensions, which are quickened though technology.

Interestingly, Postone makes a critical point about the relationship between the concrete, productive manifestation of capital, through its relationships to industry and technology, as a form of natural work or labour, and crisis. Thus, the idea

that the concrete is “natural,” and which increasingly presents the socially “natural” in such a way that it is perceived in biological terms. It is precisely the hypostatization of the concrete and the identification of capital with the manifest abstract which renders this ideology so functional for the development of industrial capitalism in crisis. National Socialist ideology was in the interests of capital not only for the very obvious reason that it was virulently anti-Marxist and that the Nazis destroyed the organizations of the German working class. It was also in the interests of capital in the transition from liberal to quasi-state capitalism. The identification of capital with the manifest abstract overlaps, in part, with its identification with the market. The attack on the liberal state, as abstract, can further the development of the interventionist state, as concrete. This form of “anti-capitalism,” then, only appears to be looking backwards with yearning. As an expression of the capital fetish its real thrust is forwards. It is an aid to capitalism in the transition to quasi-state capitalism in a situation of structural crisis (p. 111, Anti-Semitism).

This form of “anti-capitalism,” then, is based on a one-sided attack on the abstract. The abstract and concrete are not seen as constituting an antinomy where the real overcoming of the abstract – of the value dimension – involves the historical overcoming of the antinomy itself as well as each of its terms. Instead there is the one-sided attack on abstract Reason, abstract law or, on another level, money and finance capital. In this sense it is antionomically complementary to liberal thought, where the domination of the abstract remains unquestioned and the distinction between positive and critical reason is not made. The “anti-capitalist” attack, however, does not remain limited to the attack against abstraction. Even the abstract dimension also appears materially. On the level of the capital fetish, it is not only the concrete side of the antimony which is naturalized and biologized. (p. 112, Anti-Semitism)

In moments of crisis, Postone argues that not only is it a mistake to seek redress in technocratic domination or in terms of abstract reason, but it is also alienating to look for biologistic understandings of the social problem of ecology.

Any “anti-capitalism” which seeks the immediate negation of the abstract and glorifies the concrete – instead of practically and theoretically considering what the historical overcoming of both could mean – can, at best, be socially and politically impotent in the face of capital. At worst it can be dangerous, even if the needs it expresses could be interpreted as emancipatory. (p. 115, Anti-Semitism)

What might be required then is an overcoming of the alienation imposed by and emerging from capitalist work in its abstract and concrete forms, and through its fetishisation of technological solutions to crises, be they political, financial, societal or environmental in appearance. The attempt to overcome crises borne of competition by renewing personal or social or transnational values that are themselves fashioned inside that competitive dynamic is impossible. A social revolution of life cannot be delivered through a revolution of social (re-)production that is rooted in value production and labour, or through the recuperation of concrete labour or use-value as an alleged antidote to the abstract capitalist world. As the natural world is subsumed and reproduced inside it, the ecology of capitalism reveals both the concrete and the abstract as alienating.

On value: the noose tightens

The UK’s University and College Union has warned that The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership “poses a profound threat to public services in general, including education, leaving them wide open not only to greater privatisation but making it harder for any future government to regulate foreign private sector companies operating in our public services.” (p. 1) In part this is because it enables the regulation of the idea of the public and the functions of the State, like education and healthcare, through Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanisms. This is especially the case where actions that are for the public, like nationalisation, are perceived as threatening or affecting private profits.

From a reading of Jappe’s recent History of the Critique of Value, the TTIP and the Trans-Pacific Trade Treaty are symptomatic of the material (structural and systemic), historical inability of capital to overcome the limitations on stable, global forms of accumulation. He argues (p. 1):

After two centuries, the capitalist mode of production had reached its historical limits: the rationalisation of production, which involves the replacement of human labour by technology, undermines the basis of the production of value, and therefore of surplus-value, which is the sole objective of producing commodities. However, nothing but living labour, the labour required in the act of its execution, creates value and surplus-value.

In this view:

Capital is not the opposite of labour but its accumulated form. Living labour and dead labour are not two antagonistic entities but rather two different “states of aggregation” of the same substance of labour. The labourer as such is not at all outside of capitalist society but embodies one of its two poles. It is therefore possible to conclude from Marx’s analyses that a “workers’ revolution against capitalism” is a logical impossibility. There can only be a revolution against the subjection of society and individuals to the logic of valorisation and abstract labour. (p. 5)

It is not possible to abolish value without abolishing the labour that created it. This is why contesting capitalism in the name of labour makes no sense. It would make just as little sense to set good concrete labour against bad abstract labour. When all forms of labour cease to be reduced to what they have in common —the expenditure of energy—there will no longer be “concrete” labour (such a category is itself an abstraction). There will instead be a multiplicity of activities with specific goals in mind. (p. 6)

One of the critical issues is that globally “the absolute amount of value, and therefore of surplus-value, is declining precipitously” (p. 7), which places a society based on the production and accumulation of value in crisis, not least because it leads to labour-related counter-measures linked to unemployment, precarity, organisational restructuring, outsourcing and so on, alongside a series of financialised counter-measures, like quantitative easing, bank bailouts and wealth transfers from young people via debt to pay for an expected future standard of living. This decline in value is also witnessed in the growing amount of externalised national debt, which is based to a large extent on unrealisable assets like toxic mortgages and sub-prime educational loans. This also mediates the relationship between national debt and geopolitical manoeuvring, like the recent questions over whether Russia is Dumping U.S. Government Bonds, or the relationship between fossil fuel energy, geopolitics and the future of the petrodollar.

In this interplay between finance capital that is both abstracted from the circuit of production (in bond markets) and made concrete in the realities of everyday life (in student labour or fossil fuel use), and the reproduction of a society based on value production and accumulation:

A growing disparity arises between developments in the productive powers of labor (which are not necessarily bound to the direct labor of the workers), on the one hand, and the value frame within which such developments are expressed (which is bound to such labor), on the other. The disparity between the accumulation of historical time and the objectification of immediate labor time becomes more pronounced as scientific knowledge is increasingly materialized in production… a growing disparity separates the conditions for the production of material wealth from those for the generation of value. (Postone, Time, Labour and Social Domination, p. 297)

For Jappe, what this crisis of value formation means is not to reify labour in its concrete form, but to recognise that:

It is therefore not a matter of predicting some future collapse of capitalism, but to recognise that the crisis is already taking place and getting worse despite brief short-term recoveries. It is a crisis that is far from just economic. (p. 8)

On value and climate

In his Energy Speech in Cushing, Oklahoma, on March 22, 2012, President Obama argued that:

Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quad­rupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth, and then some. . . . In fact, the problem . . . is that we’re actually producing so much oil and gas . . . that we don’t have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it where it needs to go… as long as I’m President, we’re going to keep on encouraging oil development and infrastructure and we’re going to do it in a way that protects the health and safety of the American people. We don’t have to choose between one or the other, we can do both.

Thus, in spite of the activist, academic position that states that in order to limit climate change to below two degrees we can produce and use no more than 565 Gigatonnes of fossil fuels from the 2,795 Gigatonnes that are available, the global economy’s production of value is underwritten by carbon. Quoted in the Guardian

John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.

And this highlights the inter-relationships between value, energy, (unrealisable) assets, and our climate crisis, brought vividly into relief by Carbon Tracker and Grantham Research Institute, and Kalkuhl and Edenhofer work on stocks of carbon in the ground and in the atmosphere.

So we have the US Chamber of Commerce arguing for the role of US technology in alleviating energy poverty through access to energy, and the Center for Global Development pointing out that the World Bank is arguing for coal in order to support development agendas with the implication that:

While it can be politically attractive to argue that both energy access and climate goals can be met without any trade-offs, tensions between the two goals are becoming increasingly apparent and future disputes seem likely to emerge. (p. 3)

These disputes are then made visible in the US Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, which states:

Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating. These changes, coupled with other global dynamics, including growing, urbanizing, more affluent populations, and substantial economic growth in India, China, Brazil, and other nations, will devastate homes, land, and infrastructure. Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence. (p. 8)

Furthermore, as President Obama noted at the recent United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony:

That spirit of cooperation needs to energize the global effort to combat climate change — a creeping national security crisis that will help shape your time in uniform, as we are called on to respond to refugee flows and natural disasters and conflicts over water and food, which is why next year I intend to make sure America is out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet… America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism — it is a matter of national security. Democracies are our closest friends and are far less likely to go to war. Economies based on free and open markets perform better and become markets for our goods.

This is the law of value, reinforced democratically and militarily as a disciplinary force, which is both concrete and abstract, and leads us towards the surface acceptance that our adaptive abilities will enable us to continue to grow everything and everywhere, except in our output of carbon. Yet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s summary for policymakers on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability demonstrates that we are in the midst of a global pedagogical moment that furthers the crisis of accumulation.

Uncertainties about future vulnerability, exposure, and responses of interlinked human and natural systems are large (high confidence). This motivates exploration of a wide range of socioeconomic futures in assessments of risks. Understanding future vulnerability, exposure, and response capacity of interlinked human and natural systems is challenging due to the number of interacting social, economic, and cultural factors, which have been incompletely considered to date. These factors include wealth and its distribution across society, demographics, migration, access to technology and information, employment patterns, the quality of adaptive responses, societal values, governance structures, and institutions to resolve conflicts. International dimensions such as trade and relations among states are also important for understanding the risks of climate change at regional scales. (p. 10)

However, the IPCC is unable to imagine adaptation beyond capitalist counter-measures. It is unable to move beyond the abstraction of the law of value as it mediates our everyday reality, in order to describe or call for a different way of doing things.

Existing and emerging economic instruments can foster adaptation by providing incentives for anticipating and reducing impacts (medium confidence). Instruments include public-private finance partnerships, loans, payments for environmental services, improved resource pricing, charges and subsidies, norms and regulations, and risk sharing and transfer mechanisms. Risk financing mechanisms in the public and private sector, such as insurance and risk pools, can contribute to increasing resilience, but without attention to major design challenges, they can also provide disincentives, cause market failure, and decrease equity. Governments often play key roles as regulators, providers, or insurers of last resort. (p. 26)

On pedagogic moments

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels argue that the need to create and enable capital flows, accumulation and spaces for further valorisation, results in “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products [which in turn] chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.” One result is that bourgeois, transnational and cosmopolitan consumption triumphs over local, national cultures, and industries that are defined by productivity and intensity dislodge indigenous cultures.

Thus, it is argued that the Bourgeoisie, though its new powers of production and its commodities and its restructuring of laws, inscribes new, global markets into the circuits of production, and creates a world in its own image. This echoes Marx’s argument in the Grundrisse that the hegemony of the bourgeois mode of production rests on the expansion of a global system of valorisation, which in turn demands that commodities are not simply used but exchanged. This process of exchange demands the spatial transformation of productive forces, including transport and modes of communication. Thus, Capital drives beyond its spatial barriers and we see the “annihilation of space by time”, as circulation time and labour time are revolutionised to give quicker access to new markets.

How do we transform our thinking around a society based on value, in the face of climate change and potentially unrealisable carbon-based assets? How do we mediate and understand the concrete/abstract realities of climate change as they affect everyday life, in order to reimagine that everyday life? For Jappe this is centred in the reality of everyday life, and in reclaiming critique of the very abstract and concrete categories that produce and reproduce it.

In general, all recourse to “politics” (especially the state) is impossible because the end of accumulation and therefore of “real” money deprives public authorities of any means of intervention. In order to find an alternative to capitalism, it is first necessary to question the nature of the commodity and money, of labour and value, categories that seem “theoretical” but whose consequences ultimately determine what we do everyday. (p. 13)

This has echoes of Marx’s idea of communism in The German Ideology, not as “a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself [but] the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” Moreover, it also refocuses us on an idea of the public, in line with Cumbers’ focus on

those attempts, both outside and through the state, to create forms of collective ownership in opposition to, or perhaps more accurately to reclaim economic space from, capitalist social relations. If we understand capitalism as built upon the three pillars of the wage relationship, private property relations and the market, all forms of collective ownership that seek to disturb and intervene in these spheres should come into our analysis. (p. 7)

This is not simply a call to secure and re-form the Commons, which for Cumbers is

frequently evoked as a more democratic, participatory and horizontal model of ownership…which at the same time respects local difference and diversity of ownership forms against the prescriptive one-size-fits-all models of market-driven capitalism or statist socialism/social democracy. Following on from this, a further critical aspect of the contemporary commons literature is the rejection of the classical Marxist revolutionary call for a vanguard to smash capitalism. Instead the radical project today is to construct autonomous spaces outside capitalism in the here and now – i.e. prefigurative – rather than a once-and-for-all future revolutionary uprising to overthrow capitalism through an assault on the state (p.128).

Here the interrelationship between the Commons, the State and its institutions, and civil society is critical in trying to define a post-capitalism as a pedagogical, societal moment that is historically-rooted and material in nature. Here Cumbers’ argument that “there needs to be a more nuanced appreciation of the dynamic nature of spatial organization and governance under advanced capitalism…” (p. 156), aligns with the work of the FLOK Society in its Open Letter to the Commoners:

Imagine a society that is connected to open knowledge commons in every domain of human activity, based on free and open knowledge, code, and design that can be used by all citizens along with government and market players without the discrimination and disempowerment that follows from privatized knowledge.

It also aligns with the FLOK Society’s General Framework Document, which aims

to trigger and coordinate a global participatory process and immediate national application for the change of productive matrix towards a society of open and common knowledge in Ecuador, resulting in 10 base documents for legislation and state policies (synchronized with the organic social code for the knowledge economy) as well as useful for the production networks of knowledge that already exist in Ecuador. The conceptual, philosophical and economic process and the historical and socio-cognitive context framework, the organizational principles governing the process, collaborative and communicative digital tools and advance planning of the whole process.

The issue is whether it is possible to reclaim the public space, in the face of the crisis of value and the concomitant crisis of the climate. Is it possible to reconsider pedagogically the relation between the concrete and the abstract as they are reproduced inside capitalism? Is it possible to liberate democratic capability and to reorient social production away from value and towards the very possibility of governing and managing the production of everyday life in a participatory manner?

For the FLOK Society in researching the Ecuadorian National Plan for Good Living, this entails:

a new convergence or synthesis, a ‘open cooperativism’, that combines both commons-oriented open peer production models, with common ownership and governance models such as those of the cooperatives and the solidarity economic models.

It means a re-envisioning of Near Future Education and of Education as a Commons. It also means the negation of the reified nature of academic labour. So that values rather than value are at the core of how society is reproduced. So that the abstracted and festishised nature of academic practice and knowledge might be overcome. A pedagogical moment that enables the characteristics that flow into and out of academic labour, in terms of value, money and the commodity, to be defined in another image of society and social production. This is a pedagogical moment that recovers the ideas of open, participatory publics, from the ravages of private value accumulation. This is a pedagogical moment that forms part of the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.


on Mass Intellectuality

Ahead of our workshop on Mass Intellectuality, Joss Winn has argued the following about the term Mass Intellectuality.

A couple of people have questioned our use of the term ‘mass intellectuality’ for the title of our proposed book: ‘Mass Intellectuality: the democratisation of higher education. It’s a term that comes from Autonomous Marxism, based on Marx’s notion of the ‘general intellect’. Richard and I intend to introduce and discuss the term in our introduction to the book.

Here’s what Paolo Virno had to say about it:

“Mass intellectuality is the composite group of Postfordist living labour, not merely of some particularly qualified third sector: it is the depository of cognitive competences that cannot be objectified in machinery. Mass intellectuality is the prominent form in which the general intellect is manifest today. The scientific erudition of the individual labourer is not under question here. Rather, all the more generic attitudes of the mind gain primary status as productive resources; these are the faculty of language, the disposition to learn, memory, the power of abstraction and relation and the tendency towards self-reflexivity. General intellect needs to be understood literally as intellect in general: the faculty and power to think, rather than the works produced by thought – a book, an algebra formula etc. In order to represent the relationship between general intellect and living labour in Postfordism we need to refer to the act through which every speaker draws on the inexhaustible potential of language to execute contingent and unrepeatable statements. Like the intellect and memory, language is the most common and least ‘specialised’ conceivable given. A good example of mass intellectuality is the speaker, not the scientist. Mass intellectuality has nothing to do with a new ‘labour aristocracy’; it is actually its exact opposite.”

Source: ‘General Intellect by Paolo Virno

Mass intellectuality is against-and-beyond the restructuring of society for capitalist work and for the production, circulation and accumulation of value. As I write elsewhere on the co-operative university:

From such a reframing emerges a focus on alternative educational practices that develop socialised knowledge, or ‘mass intellectuality’, a direct, social force of production [which is socially useful, and based on an alternative value-form that will work in terms of the social reproduction of society in a different image.]. As the University of Utopia argued:

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

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


notes on the proto/rollback/rollout phases of the co-operative university

Stephen Ball writes of three stages of neoliberalism. The first is proto, and refers to the intellectual genesis and maturation of the project. This is the cultural attack on the everyday reality of the public and of the State, and lays the groundwork for building a consensus around the value of the market in defining the production of everyday life. It lays the groundwork for the market as the primary social arbiter. It also creates a set of spaces inside and against which the State can be reconfigured to deliver a policy structure that enhances marketization. This is the doctrinaire new normal.

The second stage is rollback, during which social life that was hitherto experienced negotiated as public or social, like the post-war Keynesian consensus, and which included free-at-the-point-of-delivery healthcare or education or social services, is broken-up or refused or denied. As a result, those services are enclosed and marketised. In this stage there is a clear interplay between the doctrinal, intellectual underpinnings of neoliberalism and the undermining of the State or of public services as inefficient. This then connects to the third stage, that of the rollout of the new neoliberal normal, through: public policy that enables the privatisation of public spaces; the insuring or indenture of access to public goods like pensions and healthcare; the individualised nature of social services; the opening-up of access to public data for private gain; the use of public policy to catalyse associations of corporations or capitals that can extract or accumulate value; and so on.

Inside English higher education these three interconnected phases of neoliberalism have played out in an increasingly indistinct manner. There has been a limited intellectual project about what higher education should be, or of the idea of what the University might be. In fact, we are left to seek out Coalition Government proposals from analyses of ministerial pamphlets like David Willetts’ Robbins Revisited, or in analyses of the Higher Education White Paper that never became an Act of Parliament, or in analyses of the relationships between Ministers and finance capital (like Goldman Sachs) in the running of symposia about the future of higher education, or in analyses of the role of private finance and global publishers (like Pearson Education).

Elsewhere we witness a policy space that is driven by secondary legislation focused upon: student debt and university funding; leveraging the role of finance capital and the bond markets in institutional debt/refinancing; using student number controls, funding for core and marginal numbers, and deregulation to catalyse competition; the use of key information sets; the monetisation of the student loan book; and so on. Moreover, the institutional response to this recalibration of a funding space has been that of competing businesses, akin to those of the English Football Pyramid, where the health of the league is secondary to the value of the individual clubs. Thus, in order to compete, individual universities restructure through the bond markets, or rebrand themselves for international markets using engagement in on-line projects like FutureLearn, or assault labour rights through zero-hour contracts and casualization and outsourcing, or drive strategies for entrepreneurialism or social enterprise, or engage explicitly in corporate partnerships with publishers and finance capital that pivot around the production of value. Here the proto phase of the marketization of higher education meets the rollback of State funding and regulation, and the rollout of opportunities for marketization and accumulation, in a messy and contested set of spaces. This mess leaves those employed in the university contested and contesting, and dissonant and dissociated, and frayed.

Thus, we see Ball’s transnational activist networks that form geographies of neoliberalism playing out in the recalibration of individual universities as global associations of capitals. Increasingly it becomes impossible to understand the emerging role of the University without developing a critique of its relationships to a transnational capitalist class that is restructuring the University, and which consists of academics and think-tanks, policy-makers and administrators, finance capital and venture capital and private equity, educational publishers, and philanthropists. The aim is to regulate the State and the institutions that are structured by it, like universities, for the market, for enterprise, and for-profit. Critical here is that the proto, rollback and rollout phases are increasingly playing out together in real-time, so that the room for manoeuvre for individual institutions is restricted and so that they are increasingly kettled through competition for an increasingly scarce resource (student debt, research funding, international markets etc.).

One of the issues for those driving policy and practice from this increasingly kettled perspective is that they are unable to evolve strategies beyond a narrative of economic growth. As Michael Roberts highlights, this is an issue because:

Despite a large devaluation of sterling as a response to the financial crash, exports have not made much progress and the UK’s deficit on trade with the rest of the world remains very high. The UK’s government budget deficit is still the highest among the G7 economies. The real joker in the pack for the message that the UK economy is heading for 3%-plus real growth this year and next is that, just as in the US, the capitalist sector is not investing. In the activity indexes, it was notable that investment goods orders slowed.

Roberts goes to argue that in the face of poor investment, exports and productivity, the UK’s rentier economy is left exposed and increasingly reliant on earnings from rent (property), interest (often from abroad), cheap credit and foreign capital flows. Moreover, it is also increasingly framed by precarity amongst those who have limited access to that rentier economy. Thus, a secondary impact is the growth in self-employment, which universities feed-off through consultancy and outsourcing, and stimulate through pedagogies for entrepreneurship. Roberts continues:

One of the features of the employment market in the UK in this ‘boom’ has been the huge rise in self-employed workers. The number of firms with fewer than ten employees has swelled by 550,000 since 2008. While in mid-2013, there were 5.7m people working in the public sector, only 18.8% of total employment, the lowest since records began in 1999. Indeed, the self-employed will outnumber those working in the public sector in four years, once the government has completed its slashing of public sectors jobs and services.

For some this is a clarion call for entrepreneurship and certainly connects into University agendas for promoting entrepreneurial activity amongst students, or start-ups, or resilience. However, as Roberts argues, this is simply preparing students for a precarious work-bound existence fuelled by insecurity, low real wages and debt.

the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor statistics show that the proportion of new entrepreneurs in the UK driven by valuable opportunities has fallen – from a high of 61 per cent in 2006 to 43 per cent in 2012. And ONS figures show that a falling number of self-employed people employ other workers, suggesting that the rise in self-employment is not translating into new, thriving businesses. Researchers at the University of Warwick found that, in less prosperous areas of the UK, policies to increase firm formation had a negative impact on long-term employment, as those who started new companies had low skills, few other options, and poor market prospects.

What is really behind the increase in self-employed is not ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ but the loss of benefits and the ability of self-employed to claim tax credits under the government ‘welfare reforms’. As Richard Murphy at Tax Research has pointed out, the self-employed now account for 14 percent of the employed workforce but 19 percent of working tax credit claimants. In other words, those working for themselves are more likely to be claiming tax credits than those in employment. Actually the self-employed, like the employed are earning less than they did before the slump. In 2007-08, 4.9 million self-employed earned £88.4bn, but in 2011-12, 5.5 million self-employed earned £80.6bn. Indeed, the Resolution Foundation found that that self-employed weekly earnings are 20% lower than they were in 2006-07, while employee earnings have fallen by just 6%. As a result, the typical self-employed person now earns 40% less than the typical employed person.

This precarious reality is where the fissures between the proto/rollback/rollout phases of neoliberalism meet the University. Moreover, they restructure our everyday educational and pedagogical realities. In the Enigma of Capital, David Harvey has spoken about the ways in which technologies and forms of organisational development reveal these realities through: our forms of production, exchange and consumption; our relations to nature and the environment; the social relations between people; our mental conceptions of the world; our labour processes; our governance structures; and how we reproduce society. If we apply these concepts to the neoliberal University, we are able to ask the following questions.

  1. How do the university’s managers, staff and students produce, exchange and consume, in terms of commodities, knowledge and value? What is the role of financialisation and the market in those processes, and whom do they benefit?
  2. What is the relationship of the University to nature and to the environment? What is the impact of the productive activities of the university on the environment, including its reinforcement of the idea that economic growth is the only option?
  3. What does the production and the reproduction of the university as a marketised and competitive space mean for the social relations between people, including between staff, between academics and students, between managers and unions, and between academic labour and the public?
  4. What does the production and the reproduction of the university mean for our mental conceptions of the world? What does the higher education mean in terms of commodified knowledge or economic growth, or for co-operative, social solutions, or for the development and dissemination of knowledge through society as mass intellectuality?
  5. How does the university as a competing business represent and reproduce casualised and precarious labour processes, amongst staff and students? What does the entrepreneurial turn inside the university mean for the autonomy of academic labour?
  6. How does the marketised university affect our understandings of democratic, social governance? What forms of cognitive dissonance affect the role of the academic in making sense of the recalibration that is enforced through the proto/rollback/rollout phases of the neoliberal university?

In making sense of this process, I am reminded of the need to address Marx’s response to Feuerbach that: “All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” Comprehension and solution underpins and is informed by a critical pedagogic project. Joss Winn has made this point when connecting Mike Neary’s work on student-as-producer. Winn quotes Neary focusing on productive pedagogic structure and agency related to the work of Vygotsky:

For Vygotsky, in the factory of the future the labour process takes on a pedagogic function and the student merges with the worker to become: the student-worker; the pedagogic function does not teach the student-worker various skills, but rather enables the student-worker to understand the overall scheme of the production process, within which they will find their own place and meaning, as a process of learning and development. By situating themselves within a pedagogical process, whose meaning and purpose they understand, the production of knowledge is revealed not as something that is already discovered and static ( i.e., dogmatism), but is uncovered as ‘ the dynamic context of its own appearance’ (Vygotsky, 1997). (Neary 2010)

This is not the valorisation of specific entrepreneurial practices that make the individual student resilient or employable or a commodity-skilled labourer inside the market. It is situated, democratic productive activity. This also offers a mirror to the co-option of academic labour in the current proto/rollback/rollout phases of the neoliberal university. This co-option is of both academic staff and student labour, in order to discipline those populations for the market. These are potentially value-laden social forces that the processes of indentured study and precarious, competitive labour relations are dominating inside formal higher education. As Harry Cleaver argues, this is the transnational, secular control over the material reality of everyday life, and which is reinforced pedagogically, and which we can interpret as posing questions for the organisation of the university and its curriculum.

In his analyses of Neary’s work on student-as-producer, Winn points to the idea that co-operation might offer an alternative critique that in-turn enables the formation of a lasting alternative.

  • The basis for transforming institutions of higher education is the transformation of the role of the student. For Vygotsky, the student becomes the student-worker.
  • The role of the student is not simply that of becoming a ‘collaborator’, or the learner of skills, but as an active contributor to the labour process of the university (i.e. the production of knowledge), within which they find their own purpose and meaning.
  • The division of intellectual and manual labour is overcome through the recognition of education as a form of productive labour itself.
  • By revealing the organising principle of knowledge production, the university becomes grounded in the productivity of its students.
  • Through the transformation of the student and subsequent transformation of the organising principle of higher education, science and technology can be employed to transform society. The student becomes the subject rather than object of history – they make history – and humanity becomes the project rather than the resource.
  • Teaching begins from the student’s experience in a particular social context “so that the student teaches themselves” and are no longer alienated from the production of knowledge. So that students “recognise themselves in a world of their own design.” (Debord)

This is important because it connects to Marx’s argument in Capital Volumes 2 and 3, that it is in this associational phase of capital, that the opportunities for co-operative labour might emerge. These opportunities are global in scope, and are based on co-operative and democratic engagements in civil and political society that include the market, the State, the Commons, voluntary organisations, and the environment. This reflects the work of Bauwens and Iacomella on creating a co-operative, pedagogical project that might reveal alternatives: to the idea of endless growth and material abundance linked to debt; to the idea of immaterial scarcity framed by, for example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and global intellectual property law; the pseudo-abundance that encloses and destroys the biosphere. They argue for a global alliance, between movements based on open and copyfarleft, ecology and social justice, and global emancipation. Here we might usefully ask, what activities are we collectively willing to bear and how might they be determined, governed and regulated? What is the role of the university and of academic labour in addressing those activities and their governance? How do we use the university as a means for the production and liberation of alternatives? How do we create a liberation pedagogy?

Here I come back to my earlier question based on Harvey’s analysis of Capital:

What does the production and the reproduction of the university mean for our mental conceptions of the world? What does the higher education mean in terms of commodified knowledge or economic growth, or for co-operative, social solutions, or for the development and dissemination of knowledge through society as mass intellectuality?

The work emerging around the new co-operativism, and the intellectual underpinnings of pedagogies like student-as-producer, and of organisations like the social science centre offer us a way of framing and reconceptualising the proto/rollback/rollout phases of a co-operative alternative to neoliberalism. They are a way of challenging the reality of the competitive restructuring of public higher education, and the idea that the university is for-profit and valorisation. Here it is the spread of ideas across transnational activist networks of co-operators that might enable a reconnection of academic labour as labour across society, in a form that enables it to support mass intellectuality rather than private gain.

In part this is a reconnection rather than a disconnection or dissonance, through the recognition that marketization increases our collective alienation and that the desire to be other than alienated is to be cultivated socially. This is then about generating layers of democratic engagement and co-operative property rights held and secured in common, so that the knowledge and skills that make up our reality are less outsourced and more rooted in society. I am reminded that a while ago I wrote about this in terms of co-operative possibility.

Thus, we might analyse the idea of the University, inside-and-against the organisational and technological innovations that drive the speed-up or acceleration of turnover time of educational services and commodities in a global market. These innovations include the subsumption of the University inside associations of public/private capitals, in order to secure their competitive place. These innovations also tend to reduce the friction caused by distance and localised working practices. We might then ask what is the popular response to this process? Does the Social Science Centre offer one such popular response? It states that:

while there are fewer existing networks of solidarity than might exist in larger cities, there is also an intimacy and a proximity that provide possibilities for associational networks that might be diffused in larger cities. Most of us work full-time and cannot give the time to the SSC that we would like to. Without the material basis on which to work and study full-time at the SSC, we have to think creatively about the form and nature of education practised within the SSC.

As a response, educators might question how we work through association or co-operation with the geographical and spatial-temporal implications of a critique of higher education policy and practice. We might highlight the dynamics of accumulation and the need to expand markets in established economies and to create new markets as a new form of imperialism (with privileged rights to sell goods via intellectual property laws). We might ask, how does higher education policy and practice demonstrate the flows of capital between the global North and “emerging markets”, in an attempt to allow production in the former to grow, whilst supporting the creation of competitor-economies? We might ask, where is it possible to find the courage to push-back?


Friction! co-operation and technology in the neoliberal university

On Thursday I’m presenting at Friction: An interdisciplinary conference on technology & resistance at the University of Nottingham. I’ll be speaking about co-operation and technology in the neoliberal university. The abstract is appended below and the slides are here.

Abstract

In the Grundrisse, Marx argued that the circulation of productive capital was “a process of transformation, a qualitative process of value”. As capitalists sought to overcome the barriers to this transformatory process, they worked to revolutionise both the means of production via organisational and technological change, and circulation time via transportation and communication changes. Reducing friction in the production and circulation of capital is critical to the extraction of surplus value, and Marx argued that in this transformation “Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier [and]… the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.”

Higher education is increasingly a space which is being recalibrated so as to reduce friction and thereby to increase the mobility or fluidity of intellectual production and circulation. Thus, technology, technical services and techniques are deployed to collapse the interfaces between geography, space and time. However, this collapse also reveals the stresses and strains of antagonisms, as the friction of neoliberal higher education reform deforms existing cultures and histories. It also points to alternatives like those emerging from analyses of the Chilean CyberSyn project or the Ecuadorian National Plan for Good Living.

This paper argues that inside the University, the deployment of technologies, technical services and techniques enables education to be co-opted as an institutional means for production and control. As a result, academics and students are defined as entrepreneurial subjects. A question is the extent to which the friction that emerges from this neoliberal pedagogic project can be used to describe alternatives, and whether in the process it is possible to uncover ways in which education might be used for co-operation rather than competition, as a form of resistance.


On the co-operative university and the general intellect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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?


on the triple crunch and the secular crisis of the University

I presented yesterday at the Plymouth University Pedagogic Research Institute and Observatory annual conference. I spoke about the impact on higher education of climate change and liquid fuel availability, as symptoms of the secular crisis of capitalism. These are the triple crunch, or in sustainability circles the energy trilemma, and I have previously written about them here and here.

My slides are here.

However, these are the things I wish I had said.

ONE. This secular crisis of capitalism is the secular crisis of the University. This is the systemic inability to reassert stable forms of accumulation. This is the catalysis of a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, through: debts and indenture (for instance for students); the destruction of previously socialised and historically-accrued capital (for instance in the commodification and marketisation of public services like free education and healthcare, or access to natural resources); the imposition of precarity as a form of labour arbitrage (for instance, in benefit sanctions, casualised labour and zero-hour contracts); the increase in ‘asset value’ linked to commodities (from mortgages and buy-to-let, to futures in food and natural resources, and staples like gold); and the re-inflation of stock markets to pre-crisis levels.

In this secular crisis, the dislocation of the debt-driven indicators of economic growth from the realities of how value is created in the productive economy infects the University. It drives student debt, and the data-driven consumption of the idea of education. It drives the myth of the student-as-entrepreneur, who is able to recreate and reinvent herself as an autonomous wealth creator. It drives the myth that higher education exists for international competitiveness and employability, in the face of global labour arbitrage, the disciplining of dissent, the 40 year collapse in real wages, and the catastrophic rise in youth unemployment. It drives the financialisation of the student loan book, and the monetisation of the activities of the University through the bond markets.

In this secular crisis we witness academic subsumption under the rule of money. We witness academic inability to refuse the proprietary claims made for the rule of the market. These claims that are made for the market as the principal organising mechanism for our academic lives, and which cannot be refused, are our secular crisis. And do we wonder at our alienation under the re-inflation of a financial bubble that now re-defines academic study and work, and that will make the poor even poorer when it bursts? A market correction; which further corrects the idea of the University; which further disciplines the idea of the academic; because debt and immateriality cannot create value when it is dislocated from a productive life.

TWO. Indenture, precarity and correction: a collective threat to the social cohesion of our communities and our universities, precisely as they are to our cities and our nations. Where is this collective threat in our discussions of what a University is for? How are the relationships between the market and money, labour and production, value and values, connected to the University as engine for entrepreneurship or internationalisation or employment or creativity? Is the University redeemable?

THREE. And this point further coalesces around the University as energy sink; around the University as engine of value creation; around the University and gross domestic product. Because there is a strong correlation between liquid energy use and GDP, and yet as global energy demand is on the rise, our access to liquid fuel is forecast to decline. As the US Joint Forces Command reported in 2010:

A severe energy crunch is inevitable without a massive expansion of production and refining capacity. While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions

And we have a recent UK Ministry of Defence Strategic Trends Programme report, which argued:

The western ‘way of life’ is often associated with ready access to a wide variety of consumer choice and relatively cheap energy. This is likely to be increasingly challenged as lifestyles follow GDP levels and ‘normalise’ across the globe. This trend will have significant impact within the US and the UK, where the way of life for the bulk of their populations may be challenged by rising energy and resource. prices, and the declining availability of finance to sustain discretionary spending.

There is no precedent for oil discoveries to make up for the shortfall, nor is there a precedent for efficiencies to relieve demand on this scale. And so the IMF have reported that:

our prediction of small further increases in world oil production comes at the expense of a near doubling, permanently, of real oil prices over the coming decade. This is uncharted territory for the world economy, which has never experienced such prices for more than a few months…

we suspect that there must be a pain barrier, a level of oil prices above which the effects on GDP becomes nonlinear, convex. We also suspect that the assumption that technology is independent of the availability of fossil fuels may be inappropriate, so that a lack of availability of oil may have aspects of a negative technology shock.

In that case the macroeconomic effects of binding resource constraints could be much larger, more persistent, and they would extend well beyond the oil sector.

And yet public sector debt, and student debt, and University debt, are burdens that ultimately require economic growth to pay them down. Or they demand the discipline of the State in enforcing the claims of the market to your/my/our labour. As Marx wrote:

the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.

Between equal rights force decides. Until our debts are redeemed. And if energy supply looks likely to constrain growth, well what then for the University? What then for our academic labour? What then for our equal rights?

FOUR. Maybe energy is the least of our worries. The Royal Society’s People and Planet report from 2012 argued that there is an urgent need to address issues of climate change and resource availability across the globe. The report argued:

in the most developed and the emerging economies unsustainable consumption must be urgently reduced. This will entail scaling back or radical transformation of damaging material consumption and emissions and the adoption of sustainable technologies. At present, consumption is closely linked to economic models based on growth. Decoupling economic activity from material and environmental throughputs is needed urgently. Changes to the current socio-economic model and institutions are needed to allow both people and the planet to flourish by collaboration as well as competition during this and subsequent centuries. This requires farsighted political leadership concentrating on long term goals.

Is this radical transformation the entrepreneurial, indebted, analytical, international, exchangeable University? And how is this University to make sense of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability? This is a report that indicates with high confidence that we are beyond the IPCC ‘marker’ scenario range, and are now at a fork between a mean global temperature rise of 1-3 degrees Celsius and one of 3.5-5 degrees Celsius. Whatever the opportunities this allegedly allows, what is the role of the University in asking questions about the activities it undertakes in contributing to such a rise? What is the critical role of academics in questioning the purpose and value of those activities, be they productive or unproductive? How on earth do universities, driven by internationalisation strategies, measure and reduce scope 3 emissions? What is the role of academics in asking whether this society regulated for the market is the only solution to the crunch of climate change?

FIVE. There is so much volatility and precarity that we might feel deadened by the question, “what is to be done?” And yet under different, collective and co-operative sets of organising principles, which in turn interconnect the State, the market and civic societies, alternatives have been possible.

  • In Cuba, high levels of educational participation and human welfare have been attained at lower levels of GDP and ecological impact.
  • In Bhutan, the Government attempted to index growth based on gross national happiness.
  • In Allende’s Chile, the CyberSyn project attempted to make “a deliberate effort to hand to the people the power that science commands, in a form in which the people can themselves use”.
  • In Mexico, the Zapatista Little Schools of Below, focused upon collective work as “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.”
  • In Ecuador, the National Plan for Good Living, spoke of five revolutions: democratic; ethical; economic; social; Latin American dignity; designed “to build a fraternal and co-operative coexistence.” This includes “the transformation of higher education and the transfer of knowledge in science, technology and innovation”, with practices focused upon diversity, participation, social and economic equality, and bio-knowledge (or an engagement with/care for the land/climate/environment).
  • Through the FLOK Society Transition Project, Michael Bauwens has spoken of the real possibilities for democratic innovation and civic driven change through: the creation of a participatory commons; the creation of entrepreneurial coalitions; the creation of a socially-nurtured, broad-based open commons that are fed in policy and practice; and nurturing solidarity co-operatives. In this way structure supports individual and co-operative agency that is participative, against the commodification of risk that emerges from the individuated consumption in the global North. As Bauwens argues:

we work in a triarchical way. We have the state. We have the civic society with the commons and we have the market with an ethical economy. We need to change all three at the same time and doing so will create a new democracy so we can no longer just talk about democracy and ignore the fact that our state has been captured by financial interests. We have to do something structurally about that. We cannot have a democracy that is actually isolated from the situation in which democracy operates.

  • The IPCC report on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability asks us to focus on diversity and context, in order to think about complementary actions across levels, from individuals to governments, in reducing vulnerability and exposure to present climate variability. It asks us to focus on societal values, objectives, and risk perceptions. It asks us to be sensitive to context and the diversity of decision types, decision processes, and constituencies, although it is unable to escape Jameson’s stricture that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism. It asks us to think about short-termism or failing to anticipate consequences that can result in maladaptation. Whatever its boundaries, it asks us to think.

SIX. In the face of the triple crunch, of the volatility imposed by the interrelationships between peak oil, our climate realities, and the secular crisis of capitalism, is business as usual really possible for those who labour and study in higher education? How do we develop the usefulness of our work and ourselves, rather than their means for alienation and exchange?

What kinds of conversations are we having with society about the reality of our need for more sophisticated financial engineering to underpin increasing student debt and precarious futures? What kinds of conversations are we having with society about the market’s domination over our access to/use of liquid fuel, and the management of climate change?

What kinds of conversations should we be having with young people and their parents about the volatile relationships between debt, real wages, unemployment and precarity, in the face of the added volatility of access to the resources that keep the economy growing?

By refusing our critical, academic role in questioning whether there really is no alternative, what are we modelling for our students and our communities and our society? What alternative scenarios are we remembering and revealing and discussing and realising? How are we being careful in realising who has power-to produce the world? How are we being courageous in modelling questioning and difference and solidarity and association and participation?

Is academic neutrality, inside-and-beyond the University, really an option?