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?

higher education and the triple crunch

I’m presenting at the Plymouth University Pedagogic Research conference on Wednesday, about higher education and the triple crunch.

There are some notes on the University and the secular crisis [crunch 1].

There are some notes on climate change and liquid fuel availability [crunch 2 and 3] here and here.

My slides are here.

Friction, co-operation and technology in the neoliberal university

I’m presenting at “Friction: An interdisciplinary conference on technology and resistance in May. My abstract is noted below.
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 alienation and the curriculum

ONE. On alienation, time and exchange

In the Grundrisse, Marx argued that the possibility of human subjectivity, of an autonomy or agency for humans in their work and their leisure, was impossible inside the structuring social relations enforced by capitalism. For the worker:

the creative power of his labour establishes itself as the power of capital, as an alien power confronting him… Thus all the progress of civilisation, or in other words every increase in the powers of social production… in the productive powers of labour itself – such as results from science, inventions, divisions and combinations of labour, improved means of communication, creation of the world market, machinery etc., enriches not the worker, but rather capital; hence only magnifies again the power dominating over labour.. the objective power standing over labour. (pp. 307-8)

Through the process and outcome of her labour, the worker continually negates herself, but as importantly she internalises the means through which she is objectified, over and over again. The worker’s labour time, energy, skill and practice are continually appropriated, alongside the products of that labour, and through the disciplinary nature of the market her humanity and her relationship to others is objectified. The expropriation of her surplus value is compounded by the fact that this expropriation forms an apparently natural and deterministic process, which persistently re-produces the relations of wage labour. There is no alternative to this natural order.

Alienation through time and exchange, is revealed for Rikowski under the following conditions: that we labour in capitalist society; that the product is not owned by us; that work is imposed or forced upon us; and that competition rules. As a result, we are alienated in four senses: from the commodity; from the act – the conditions – of production; from our fellow workers; and from her/himself – from our species-beings. This reminds us of Fromm’s point that ‘Man has created a world of man made things… He has constructed a complicated social machine to administer the technical machine [i.e. industrial capitalism] he built. Yet this whole creation of his stands over and above him… He is owned by his own creation, and has lost ownership of himself’ (Fromm, 1955: 115).

In this argument, the continual circulation and exchange of commodities in a market or under market conditions realises the fact that each individual producer’s labour-power and product is for others and never for herself. Labour and its products can only ever be alienated, and this applies socially, so that in one circuit of capital production becomes a means to earn a wage or to subsist or be reproduced as a wage labourer. Production is not undertaken by free social individuals, but forms a totalising process of alienation.

From this process, there is no apparent escape, either in the present or the future, as all work is for-value and as all means of production either as labour-power or as commodities are enclosed through futures or debt. In fact time itself becomes central to the mechanics of control. As Marx notes “labour does not exist as a thing but as the capacity of a living being” (Grundrisse, p. 323); it alone creates value through invention, efficiency, productivity, measured by time. The control of present and future time is the control over labour-power, and vice-versa. This makes the sale and use of labour-power, and the sale and use of time, a deeply political act. Marx argued:

On the basis of communal production, the determination of time remains, of course, essential. The less time the society requires to produce wheat, cattle etc., the more time it wins for other production, material or mental. Just as in the case of an individual, the multiplicity of its development, its enjoyment and its activity depends on economization of time. Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself. Society likewise has to distribute its time in a purposeful way, in order to achieve a production adequate to its overall needs… Thus, economy of time, along with the planned distribution of labour time in the various branches of production, remains the first economic law on the basis of communal production. However, this is essentially different from a measurement of exchange values (labour or products) by labour time. (Grundrisse, pp. 172-3)

TWO. For co-operative education and post-capitalism

However, it is important to remember that for Marx, communism or the communist hypothesis would emerge from inside capitalism. It would not be a form of anti-capitalism, it would instead be post-capitalist. As Marx argued in his Critique of the Gotha Programme

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.

In his analysis of the Critique, Joss Winn has pointed towards the co-operative and cultural importance of defining a new form of society that might emerge from inside capitalist social relations, and that Marx argued that such a new form would be stamped throughout production, consumption and distribution. Moreover, labour becomes predicated on value that is reclaimed socially for use rather than for exchange. Co-operative or communal definitions of the mechanisms that support the use and distribution of commodities, including those for consumption, become central in creating common ownership and supporting direct rather than marketised production.

It is important to note the imperative to drive the development of post-capitalist forms from inside the existing system, and that education is a central element of that project. For Winn, autonomous co-operative practice, or the formation of co-operatives that could reinforce and reproduce worker-agency, is central to Marx’s work:

Marx is clear that the need for workers themselves to “revolutionize the present conditions of production and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid.” The meaning and purpose of co-operatives is, we might say, expedient or pedagogical. They are a step towards communism and away from the capitalist state, but should not be confused with a form of communism itself. They provide the conditions for communism to historically, materially and epistemologically emerge.

“But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not proteges either of the governments or of the bourgeois” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme)

This focus on co-operation connects to a critique of alienation and alienating educational or pedagogical practices. Our lived educational realities, which are underscored by the loss of time through debt and indenture, alongside the commodity fetishism attached to the research and pedagogic outputs of higher education, and the attack on labour rights and labour-power through outsourcing, monitoring and precarity, connect the pedagogic institution to alienated labor and the alienated production and consumption of goods. At issue is whether the University offers a space in which alienation can be refused or pushed back against, to take back social ownership of the curriculum and its means of production, and the pedagogic cycles or circuits through which an emancipatory curriculum might be renewed. As Wendling has argued:

The revolution has the power not only to restore the worker’s activity, but with it to restore the essence of the human species as such to produce freely, and to produce itself as a free producer in nonalienating practical life activity. Revolution thus restores objectification and what alienation has taken away as a result of objectification’s loss: spirit (i.e. personality). The effect will be a notion of human activity, or production, unlimited by the alienated constructions that make up the notions “labor” or “work.” Marx’s call to revolution thus extends beyond a critique of distribution to challenge the mode of production (p. 21)

THREE. The formal, performative curriculum

It is against this process of alienation that I reflected on two pedagogic spaces or events in the last week. The first was the initial meeting of 20 lecturers who are studying on the second module of a post-graduate certificate in higher education. The module analyses Assessment and Feedback in Higher Education, and takes a formal, institutionalised form, whereby the learning outcomes, assessment tasks and weekly schedule is given by the programme teaching team. As module leader I attempted to set the first session up discursively, so that we could discuss the content and structure of the curriculum, and analyse how the assessments interconnected and how they might be addressed in the specific context of the module.

However, I also tried to include some negotiated, co-produced elements based around eight, Fight Club-style rules.

The rules

#1 – The first rule of EDUC5003 is that, inside the agreed curriculum framework, everything is most things are negotiable.

#2 – The second rule of EDUC5003 is that we are expected to contribute based on courage, fidelity, restraint, generosity, tolerance and forgiveness.

#3 – The third rule of EDUC5003 is that I will be on-time for sessions and tutorials, and in giving participants feedback in good time so that it can be acted upon. Or I will explain why this is not the case in good time.

#4 – The fourth rule of EDUC5003 is that participants will be on-time for sessions and tutorials, and will submit assessments on-time so that they can be marked in good time. Or the participant will explain why this is not the case in good time.

#5 – The fifth rule of EDUC5003 is that learning set and self-directed study are critical components. I will expect report on what has been discussed, produced, achieved, or not.

#6 – The sixth rule of EDUC5003 is that participants are expected to produce and to contribute, as well as to consume the module.

#7 – The seventh rule of EDUC5003 is that teaching sessions will go on as long as they have to.

#8 – The eighth rule of EDUC5003 is that whether this is your first time discussing assessment in higher education or not, you have to assess and be assessed.

This was a deliberate hacking of the Third University’s rules of alternative teacher training, and it was designed to create a negotiable, co-operative and humane space. However, the creation of that space was predicated upon its insertion inside a formalised University, whose curricula are rarely defined in terms of co-production, and where those curricula and their assessment are structured and disciplined by external agencies (the Higher Education Academy, public and regulatory bodies, the Quality Assurance Agency) and external imperatives (accreditation, licenses to teach in higher education, validation of outcomes). Moreover the space is further disciplined through the internalisation of boundaries between teacher and student, assessor and assesse, and the cultural norms of an institution which demand that whilst attendance in formal teaching, contact sessions is expected, competing demands (running student labs or inductions or team meetings) take precedence.

In this way, constant and terrifying performativity moderates and nuances the labour of the academic participant, through the dictates of the market (the power of the student as consumer and her power-over the labour of the participant – if you can’t find someone to cover your lab session then what are you going to do?), and the dictates of management (the need to demonstrate capability in a range of administrative, teaching and research spaces and to balance which has most power-over your labour at any one time), and the dictates of monitoring mechanisms (have you written that essay, given feedback to your students in time, completed that research plan?). Collectively these mechanisms ensure that performativity is internalised inside the academic with a focus on individual entrepreneurial activity that focuses upon value rather than human values.

Thus, in terms of the first essay, which is a reconsideration of an assessment strategy on one module or programme, in order to analyse how feedback might be enhanced, the discussion has to focus on the exact meaning and definition of the essay question as it is handed down. How might it be analysed? What are the contextual and disciplinary boundaries for the work? What do the grade boundaries and assessment criteria look like. The meaning of the power-over us, exhibited through the assessment process, is socially-constructed so that we can attempt to liberate some freedom to act and to write. However, at each turn is a question over the validity of our interpretations, and whether sufficient trust exists in the space that we can collectively, as students and teacher, come up with a better approach to the essay, in process and outcome. Or does the validated module handbook become a disciplinary tool that further objectifies our work? Is there a possibility for overcoming the alienation that we feel where:

  • we have to submit a non-negotiable thing in a specific time;
  • the production of this thing impacts and interferes with our practice in other areas;
  • the production of this thing involves our judging the labour of ourselves or others as non-enhanced or non-optimised or non-legitimate against the realities of established pedagogic research and practice;
  • the production of this thing is an individuated rather than co-operative and social activity;
  • the production of this thing dominates the learning and teaching landscape, so that the space and time that teacher and student are together get recalibrated by it;
  • the production of this thing makes and reinforces a boundary between students and between student and teacher?

FOUR. A co-operative, pedagogic space

Yet it does not have to be this way. The second pedagogic space that I attended was the second meeting of this terms Social Science Imagination course at the Social Science Centre in Lincoln. The course is an on-going process of defining the relationships between co-operation and education, through repeated, facilitated negotiation and a willingness to voice and be heard, with a focus on “the importance of education, training and information to help think critically about running a co-operative and organisational forms beyond co-operatives.” Crucially, in terms of a co-operative pedagogy and an alternative social means of producing and consuming that pedagogy, the first session concluded “by starting to think about some of the themes that came out of the discussions with the aim of starting to develop concrete themes that we will examine for the rest of the course.”

I was not present at the first session, but what was clear from the reflections on it that were read out in the second session was the depth of common ownership of the course as a common treasury from which all could draw down. This does not mean that it is not challenging or uncomfortable, but more that elements of the rules of EDUC5003 noted above were present in a much more humane way. So: the negotiable elements of the curriculum (its organisation, form, content, modes of assessment, ways of sharing and so on) were agreed to be negotiable; the sessions will be based on contribution that is based on courage, fidelity, restraint, generosity, tolerance and forgiveness; that time was to be defined socially and around use, rather than the production of things that could be exchanged; that scholars might take the lead, and that it is hoped that all will be able to produce and to contribute, as well as to consume the course.

The reflections from participants on week 1 made me consider the following elements of any curriculum, and how any curriculum inside or outside an institution might be critiqued and reframed.

  • The soul is at work when we learn and when we teach. We place ourselves on the line as teachers and students and scholars. How might we overcome the alienation of our souls from our selves in the formalised classroom through a connection that was more than an exchange of educational goods? How do we define a pedagogy that is based on love and courage and care?
  • How might we redefine the ways in which we organise the curriculum, so that we re-engage with democracy and autonomy? What might this mean for the “rules” which govern our teaching and our study, or for power-over others and their work in our classrooms?
  • Words are critical tools. In the important words of one scholar at the Social Science Centre, they are “a sign of solidarity.” How do we use our definition of them to open up critical spaces and times in our pedagogy and in our curriculum, so that we can live an education that is co-operative or based on mutuality and contribution? How do we use them to push-back against performativity?
  • How do we define an educational space that is based on “our pedagogy” (as a second scholar put it)? How can we do this in a space that will be defined by “an increasing collectivity”, rather than one which is collective from the outset? Our shared, co-operative enterprise is not born whole, rather it emerges, pace Marx “economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” Might we, as educators, be able to create a safe space against which the internalised logic of entrepreneurial activity that is calibrated by exchange-value can be resisted, whilst a new co-operative form is defined? In addressing this question I am mindful of the point made by a third scholar who said: “What is our practice? Why am I asking these questions?” Our own position as student or teacher or scholar is critical in developing a response to the established educational position, which is in-turn framed by the market, management and a need to monitor.

FIVE. A curriculum against alienation

As a result of the conversation in the second class, I realised that a class based on co-operative practices and values might be able to build a shared conception of its own pedagogy through:

  • shared readings that ground and focus a discussion, and connect it to other content, ideas, skills, practices;
  • shared roles in/against the classroom (teacher, student, scholar, blogger, note-taker, tea-maker);
  • the communal, negotiated production of a curriculum jargon-buster;
  • the communal production of a common bibliography, as a commons that might circulate a new form of collectivity (perhaps akin to some of the elements of ds106);
  • an increasing inclusivity and democracy and autonomy of practice, so that scholars can give voice and be heard;
  • the idea of production and consumption of ideas generated through co-operative education as a solidarity economy, where all could contribute their expertise or energy or voice or encouragement;
  • the curriculum as a form of struggle to know or to become, so that the form and content is not prefigured, but is rather re-negotiated (so that one scholar asked why the rest of the course had to be 8 weeks. Why not 10?).

The definition of a co-operative education as a solidarity economy that is based on use-value and sharing, and that is against entrepreneurial and performative activity based on exchange-value is a critical process in confronting alienation. It is an overcoming of the fear of freedom that is inscribed and reinscribed through the objectified relations of the established curriculum. The at times painful, co-operative negotiation of the curriculum, its content, its (non-)assessment, and its organisation and forms, can be intensely uncomfortable, but it is also a process of legitimising our own claims to what we want to learn and who we want to be. It is a process of reclaiming our labour: for the social uses it has; for the mutuality of its products; for its reconnection of our soul to that of our fellows; and for its recognition and re-making of our alienated selves.

This is a lifelong pedagogical process of finding spaces to reclaim time and space against capital’s demand to be the automatic subject, and against its demand to dominate over our existences so that they are objectified. Whether this is possible inside the dominant forms and structures of higher education (the University) is questionable. Perhaps it is as a space both to reflect on the demands of performativity that affects academic labour inside the formal university, and to liberate the practices of knowing, that the Social Science Centre becomes important. Inside it, the description and liberation of a co-operative curriculum and the common ownership of the production, consumption and distribution of knowledge becomes possible in a way that might enable common ownership and organisation. Moreover, it offers a model against which alienation might usefully be resisted.

Some notes on academic labour and fronts of struggle

ONE. The State will not save the public University

The idea of neoliberalism as a globalising, disciplinary discourse is especially important in Stephen J. Ball’s work on Global Education Inc.. Ball argued that the State has a critical activist role in regulating for the market and for enterprise, and not for the society of people. In this model, the State is proactive in acting as midwife to the re-birth of public assets as market-oriented commodities. Ball traces the development of neoliberalism very deliberately as a discourse designed to promote shared libertarian, market-oriented entrepreneurialism that in-turn fosters a new nexus betweeen capital and the State, in order to re-shape all of society inside Capital’s hegemonic, totalising logic. In part, Ball sees this as facilitated by networks of power and affinity that enable the re-production of ‘geographies of social relationships’ that are in the name of money, profit, choice and deregulation. These geographies form shifting, transnational assemblages of activity and relationships that reinforce power-structures, and which consist of academics and think tanks, policy-makers and administrators, finance capital and private equity funds, media corporations and publishers, philanthropists/hedge-funds, technology firms and so on.

In this description of neoliberalism, the focus is on how uncertainties are created in the spaces in which the State operates, so that common-sense stories of the value of private enterprise in ‘leveraging’ both performance and cost reduction can be told, and so that those stories can be connected to a meta-narrative of there is no alternative. In turn these meta-narratives seize and co-opt evidence-based practices and academic judgements to reinforce World Bank and IMF orthodoxies that are related to structural readjustment, freedom and choice. Thus, the networks of interconnected actors and corporations, acting as transnational advocacy networks, reinforce dominant positions through: policy forums and advocacy; conferences; prizes; media attention; control of funding; research programmes and outcomes; evidence-based reports; regulation; MOOCs; consultancy agendas; new public management etc..

Jonathan Davies has argued that it is easy to overstate the power of network affinities in pushing back against neoliberal politics, and that such an overstating leads towards network fetishism. He states (p. 152):

network analysis draws attention to the production, reproduction and contestation of power and the manner in which alliances forged around congruent interests and resource interdependencies reinforce asymmetric power relations. The target of critique is the proposition that network-like institutions and practices are proliferating, that they are based on novel forms of sociability and that they transcend structures of power and domination. Networks can be a powerful organising tool, but whether cooptive or insurgent, they have no special potential.

Davies questions the relationship between governance networks and network governance, and insists that critique has to be based upon capitalism, class and spaces for resistance. Such public spaces might include those highlighted in this Open letter to Occupy. He places (p. 140) “A call for critical research in order to consider how different forms of public action, from critical engagement in governance networks through to militant confrontations with the state can lead to self-transformation and learning.” In addressing the ways in which the University is being co-opted for value and for the market, it is crucial that the relationships between the University (including its organising principles and labour relations), the State apparatus that defines/marketises education, and the transnational associations of capitals/businesses that feed off public goods, are revealed.

TWO. The University disciplined globally

William I. Robinson’s nine theses on our epoch also picks-upon this call for a range of critical engagements in a range of public domains, including the relationship between higher education and universities and the State, in order to describe the established order, its organising principles, and alternatives to it. Pace Robinson, we see that the University is restructured inside a global mechanism for the accumulation of value. Moreover,

activists and scholars have tended to underestimate the systemic nature of the changes involved in globalisation, which is redefining all the fundamental reference points of human society and social analysis, and requires a modification of all existing paradigms (p. 13).

Thus, capitalist globalisation denotes: a world of generally-impoverished labour, where capital is fighting for its survival through the politics of austerity; power that is incubated through technology, including in the changing face of production and of labour relations; and the hatching of transnational capital out of national capitals in the global North (following the transnational capture of state apparatus of control in the North and the attempt to do so in the South). This process is as live for the University and the academic as for any other sector/labourer, through precarity, outsourcing/leveraging skills, privatisation, indentured study and financialisation, labour arbitrage and organisational development/efficiency.

However, this process has several contradictions and leads to Robinson’s nine theses, which increasingly impact the life and work of academics and students.

First, the essence of the process is the replacement for the first time in the history of the modern world system, of all residual pre (or non) –capitalist production relations with capitalist ones in every part of the globe.

Second, a new ‘social structure of accumulation’ is emerging which, for the first time in History, is global.

Third, this transnational agenda has germinated in every country of the world under the guidance of hegemonic fractions of national bourgeoisies.

Fourth, observers search for a new global hegemon and posit a tri-polar world of European, American, and Asian economic blocs. But the old nation-state phase of capitalism has been superseded by the transnational phase of capitalism.

Fifth, the ‘brave new world’ of global capitalism is profoundly anti-democratic.

Robinson states (p. 21): “The trappings of democratic procedure in a polyarchy do not mean that the lives of the mass of people become filled with authentic or meaningful democratic content, much less that social justice or economic equality is achieved.”

Sixth, ‘poverty amidst plenty’, the dramatic growth under globalisation of socioeconomic inequalities and of human misery, a consequence of the unbridled operation of transnational capital, is worldwide and generalised.

Seventh, there are deep and interwoven gender, ethnic and racial dimensions to this escalating global poverty and inequality.

Eighth, there are deep contradictions in emergent world society that make uncertain the very survival of our species – much less mid- to long-tem stabilisation and viability of global capitalism – and portend prolonged global social conflict.

Ninth, stated in highly simplified terms, much of the left world-wide is split between two camps. These are: the neo-Keynesians that seek rapprochement with capital, based on social democracy and redistributive justice; those who see capitalism as inherently wicked and to be rejected/resisted without working through a coherent socialist alternative to the transnational phase of capitalism.

Robinson describes a world of structural adjustment by both the State and transnational organisations, in order to support the politics of permanent structural violence against the world’s majority. He notes (p. 27):

we should harbour no illusions that global capitalism can be tamed or democritised. This does not mean that we should not struggle for reform within capitalism, but that all such struggle should be encapsulated in a broader strategy and programme for revolution against capitalism. Globalisation places enormous constraints on popular struggles and social change in any one country or region. The most urgent task is to develop solutions to the plight of humanity under a savage capitalism liberated from the constraints that could earlier be imposed on it through the nation state. An alternative to global capitalism must therefore be a transnational popular project… The popular mass of humanity must develop a transnational class consciousness and a concomitant political protagonism and strategies that link the local to the national and the national to the global.

The question is then whether academics recognise these theses in their own alienation, and if they do then what might be done? Is it possible for academics to contribute to “a transnational popular project”?

THREE. For association

This point has been reinforced by Jehu in his resolutions for 2014, which focus upon the self-as-activist in pushing against capitalist work, and against the fetishisation of the State as some kind of moral arbiter between Labour and Capital. Jehu appears to be clear in looking for an activism that lies beyond the politics of democratic capitalism situated inside states, and he encourages all those who labour or who sell their labour-power in the market

not to employ the state, but to abolish it and replace it by association… that is immediately universal — global — and encompasses workers of every nation. We have to go back to our roots and remember that workers have no country. The working class is the material expression of the dissolution of all nations, classes, religions, etc.

This global, associational focus is important because emancipation is not possible inside a life defined by capitalist work.

Labor is not neutral: it does not just create wealth for a few, it creates poverty for billions side by side with this wealth. Labor is itself the active creation of poverty and misery, it is active self-impoverishment of the laborers; there is no palliative that can change the nature of labor, nor prevent the population of the planet from falling further into poverty. Any argument for labor — for full employment — is simply an argument for poverty, misery and environmental devastation.

Thus, Jehu argues that “Going beyond capitalism precisely means going to a set of conditions that violate ‘how capitalism works’ in every sphere of social life.” This is itself critical because the way in which we produce goods is the way that we produce society. So the current organising principles for society are based on the exploitation of labour. This then underpins the politics of austerity, and the move against welfare, or for growth or for the ideology of there is no alternative, or the disciplining of students who protest debts. Thus, we see increasingly the State acting as enforcer, in order to stimulate spaces for growth or jobs that includes education and the University. We also witness an increasing struggle for power between transnational associations of capitals and labour, including academic labour.

Part of this power-struggle focuses upon the need for higher education to contribute to the maintenance and reproduction of a society whose sole aim is economic growth through jobs. We do not witness a move towards shorter working hours, or leisure-time activities, or autonomy in defining a life that is beyond entrepreneurial activity, or in supporting an education that is beyond employability. Higher education and the role of academic labour is defined globally against the ability of the transnational capitalist class to extract value/profit and to fix labour as wage-earner capable of consumption. Jehu highlights how this underpins a politics that is for jobs and not shorter hours, and for jobs rather than the environment (witnessed under the Abbott Government in Australia) and that is for labour-intensity rather that capital intensity, because there is a point at which labour efficiencies damages the purchasing power of labour in a world market. This reveals a structural tension between technological and organisational efficiencies for labour and the possibility for finding other means to use a reserve army of labour that is as true for academics as for any other sector of the economy.

FOUR. Precarity and the living death of capitalist work

In two recent pieces on the attrition on and deterioration of work in Australian universities, Kate Bowles has highlighted the problems in seeking redress from inside the University as an autonomous organisation. Instead she argues for a more humane approach to the management of change and to understanding the ways in which academic work or labour is being restructured globally. Of those involved in change programmes, she notes:

please make sure that you’re really well informed about the labour market conditions in the sector you’re promising to disrupt. We’ve had two years of listening to you about the democratisation of student access to education, and the efficacy of student management; now let’s hear your thoughts on improving the human experience of work in higher education—and not just for the handful of mostly male tenured celebrities at top-tier US institutions you’re using to promote your brand.

Because until you really understand the rapid, serious deterioration of work in higher education, your chances of achieving sustainable change, the change that you want to be part of, are nil.

In discussing tenure, Kate argues that Australian academics are in an increasingly precarious position, especially in light of the threats of outsourcing/leveraging elements of their work, of casualisation, and of perceived market specialism.

Many Australian universities have in their three year contract with their workforce the capacity to redeploy or retrench academics if the discipline market shifts, or technology makes a difference in very unexplained ways, and it’s no longer in the business interests of the organisation to commit to the expense of someone’s permanent salary. This is what makes the culture of continuous departmental restructure so serious. While universities shuffle their salary commitments around the disciplines to optimise their ranking performance, academics now also need to imagine remixing their expertise quickly to be something else if that’s the way the wind blows—which is to say that expertise itself has already been redefined as a barrier to flexibility.

She then points to an Australian Fair Work Commission judgement, which decided in favour of an Australian University that:

“A category E professor is a far more expensive employee for the School than a Lecturer A or B employee. The retrenchment and redundancy provisions of the Agreement are objectively intended to allow the University to address commercial imperatives arising from changed business circumstances. A practical approach to the construction of the Agreement favours a conclusion that does not oblige the University to retain that far more expensive employee to perform work that can be, and is presently, performed by significantly less expensive casual employees in the Lecturer A or B classification. [emphasis, as they say, not in the original]”

This whole judgment is painful to study. At its heart is the story of three real people fighting unsuccessfully to keep the jobs they signed up for, and a union fighting alongside them; hidden behind this are all the stories of their significantly less expensive colleagues whose terrible working conditions have become the very low-lying marker in the struggle for fair work in sustainable universities, and whose situation could yet get worse under MOOC-driven disruption and tech-supported unbundling of work.

This unbundling of academic labour highlights the subsumption of that work under the politics of neoliberalism that is about power-over the world. Precarity and the lack of tenure, the role of technology, the use of organisation development or neuro-linguistic programming or cognitive analytical therapy, outsourcing, the entrepreneurial turn and employability strategies, and so on, need to be critiqued against the clash of social forces catalysed by transnational capital’s need to control labour. These are each mechanisms played out in educational domains that are increasingly formed of associations of private capitals/businesses, and which form a discourse of accumulation and labour arbitrage. This discourse is enforced by states through primary and secondary legislation, through funding mechanisms, through research allocations, and through curriculum/evidence-based pronouncements.

FIVE. Academic labour and fronts of struggle

Recent academic work on the intensity and geographical spread of protest points towards creating “fronts of struggle”, which are for societal mobilisation against the rule of money. This not only highlights how power deliberately uses policy, law and practice in a polyarchic manner to ossify inequality, but more importantly develops associations that are for equality. They are deliberate in their focus on defining publically and radically, social justice and radical democracy that is beyond private property and growth and there is no alternative. Rather than simply being against elites, they describe a courageous or fearless politics that is for the public.

One marker for this is an analysis of The National Plan of Ecuador, which “recognizes and stresses that the global transformation towards knowledge-based societies and economies requires a new form for the creation and distribution of value in society.” Whilst hamstrung in the first instance by the law of value and its connections to the market, spheres for the circulation of commodities and debt, and the State, the project does offer mechanisms for creating “commons-based infrastructures not just for knowledge, but for other social and productive activities”. It also points to a future beyond capitalism, that is formed of “material infrastructures that make the emergence and thrivability of open commons possible.” This appears to resonate with the horizontal and associational aspirations of the Frente Popular Darío Santillan (FPDS), to create supra-national networks of production.

Academics might then consider whether it is possible for labour to re-organise the University along the lines of The Democratic University: A proposal for university governance for the Common Weal. Also at issue is whether a process of radical democratisation might then be a transitional moment in the move towards a structure that is beyond the actually existing University as a State-subsidised actor for Capital. This highlights the increasing tension between academic freedom and institutional autonomy; a tension between corporate and democratic forms, the management of which echoes the co-option/privatisation of public spaces and public values, and the disciplining of protest and resistance. As universities are subsumed under the law of value and disciplined for growth, “there is a not-too-subtle redefinition by university managers of ‘academic freedom’ from meaning ‘freedom of academics from us’ to ‘freedom for us from everyone’.” The question is how academics might contribute to an activism that point to alternatives that are beyond capitalism?


On the University, protest and a post-capitalist imagination

Marx was clear that given the nature of capitalist social relations, there can be no balanced growth or equilibrium reached inside production for the market. The history of crises, and of both State and transnational responses to those crises, crystallises that reality further. Unfortunately for those living and working inside higher education this is being realised as the University moves from its formal subsumption under capitalist social relations to its real subsumption. This process involves the restructuring of higher education as a terrain for exchange value, rather than simply for the production of use values, and as a site for the expanded reproduction of capital.

This restructuring is painful bordering on the excruciating for many, and it is imposed in-part through measures like: the announcement in the Autumn Statement of 30,000 extra university places next year and the abolition of all number controls in 2015-16; the calls for the removal of the cap on fees; increased privatisation and outsourcing; encouraging alternative providers; the sale of the student loan book; the use of REF/impact measures for academic labour, and so on. Each of these tactical arrangements furthers the deterritorialisation of the idea that the public/social might underpin the organising principles for higher education. As a result we are left in asymmetrical opposition the State’s use of force to impose marketization. Market forces, indeed.

On the sale of the loan book, Andrew McGettigan has questioned:

why would you sell this asset class at the bottom of the market? that is, when the economy is only just beginning to recover from recession. If you believe in ‘the growth to come’, wouldn’t you be better holding on to an income steam [sic.] tied to graduate earnings?

So one is left to question whether this tactic is simply a deeply political move that is designed for the purpose of fundamentally restructuring the future direction and organising principles of higher education? One result is that it becomes impossible to go back. Moreover, each provider becomes a competing capital in a system of expanded reproduction, and is forced to become part of an association of capitals rather than simply a provider of education.

The potential for higher education to be folded inside a broader system of expanded reproduction is important for reinvestment or reallocation purposes across a global economy. However, this potentiality is disciplined by credit and debt and that bears its own risks. As the mainstream economist Jeremy Sachs recently argued, “The U.S. economy, and the world economy, cannot recover sustainably by propping up consumers for yet another binge.” Yet Phoenix Capital continue to argue that debt-related binges are exactly what is fuelling any semblance of growth:

So, we have investor sentiment showing record bullishness, investors are piling into stocks at a pace not seen since 1999-2000: at the height of the Tech Bubble, earnings are generally falling, the global economy is contracting, and the Fed is already buying $85 billion worth of assets per month.

We all know how this bubble will burst: badly. It’s just a question of when. The smart money is either selling into this rally (Fortress and Apollo Group) or sitting on cash (Buffett). They know what’s coming and are waiting.

In this view, Governments need to generate reinvestment and productive capacity, in order to reinstate meaningful growth that is not simply based on consumption and mortgage-debt. However, as Michael Roberts notes, corporations are increasingly unwilling to make productive investments, preferring to hold financial assets like bonds, stocks and cash. This would indicate that the returns on productive investment are too low relative to the risk of making a loss. Thus, investment in new technology or research and development, which requires considerable upfront funding for no certainty of eventual success, is stalling. In spite of limited venture capital involvement in MOOCs and the engagement of some universities in bond markets, as Audrey Watters queries, at issue are both the business model for higher learning and how its providers will make money in the medium-term.

Roberts amplifies the importance of understanding this problem for higher education, because “In order to compete, companies increasingly must invest in new and untried technology rather than just increase investment in existing equipment.” This is riskier because R&D is costlier to finance and requires firms to hold a greater cash buffer against future shocks. Thus, says Roberts, “companies have to build up cash reserves as sinking fund to cover likely losses on research and development.” As universities are restructured as competing capitals or businesses, the relationships between investment, capital intensity, labour productivity and profitability or the ability at least to service debts through surpluses, become critical.

A central issue in judgements that will need to be made about these interrelationships and especially investment opportunities will be appetite for risk. In a speech on profitability and investment in the UK private sector, Ben Broadbent from the Bank of England noted:

Even if the crisis originated in the banking system there is now a higher hurdle for risky investment – a rise in the perceived probability of an extremely bad economic outcome… In reality, many investments involve sunk costs. Big FDI (foreign direct investment) projects, in-firm training, R&D, the adoption of new technologies, even simple managerial reorganisations – these are all things that can improve productivity but have risky returns and cannot be easily reversed after the event.

This matters for academics and students in an increasingly opened-up UK higher education market, not just because the Government is cracking the public sector for the extraction for value and profit, and as a space inside which excess surplus value can be invested, but also because secondary legislation and customary practices are becoming mechanisms for the creative destruction of capital. As Michael Roberts notes in a separate blog-post, levels of corporate debt and poor rates of return on investment mean that:

According to research by the ‘free market’ Adam Smith Institute, 108,000 so-called zombie businesses in the UK are only able to service the interest on their debt, preventing them from restructuring. In a way, this is holding back a recovery in overall profitability and new investment because “Zombie firms stop workers and money being redeployed to more productive uses, they prevent new, better firms entering the market, they undermine competitiveness, reduce productivity and slow the growth of the whole economy.” In other words, they slow ‘creative destruction’ of capital by the liquidation of the weak for the strong.

It is too easy to see how the creative destruction of certain institutions and the reappropriation of their capital assets will flow from marketization.

We might therefore usefully question how Government higher education reforms are situated against a critical political economy of the restructuring of the idea of higher education. Whilst we may argue that there is an ideological hatred of the public or the poor or the disadvantaged by those in-power that is visceral and neoliberal, we also need to recognise, as Roberts does, that reforms are driven by the “dominance of the capitalist sector” and in particular by finance capital. The sale of the loan book, outsourcing, MOOCs, precarious academic labour, are all refracted through this reality. To call for public re-investment for higher education, as Roberts again highlights, “does not ensure a rise in profitability for the capitalist sector as a whole… [and] As long as the capitalist sector is dominant in the major economies, that is what matters.”

Thus, for universities, the opening-up of the sector to the coercive laws of competition is likely to mean more outsourcing and association with the private providers of services and commodities, more engagement in finance (bond) markets, limited use of venture capital for technological innovation, and a faster pace of organisational development and restructuring, each focused on capital or labour intensity, and the production of surplus value. However, this will simply expand the contradictions inherent to capital into the sector, rather than enabling those contradictions to be overcome.

One result is likely to be the removal of the fee cap for indentured study, in order to raise effective demand. For the Russell Group this will provide an opportunity to service the global, bourgeois consumption of “high-class”, expensive educational products. For the rest there will be a fight for low-cost consumers or for a foreign trade in international students/labour that is a form of arbitrage. One of the problems in all this is that market-forces tend to be anarchic (witness Phoenix Capital’s statement noted above about the looming bear market) and incoherent, and a poor guide to managing production and abundance/scarcity of resources. This is as true of academic labour as of any other form as it is subsumed under the dictates of competition and the production/accumulation of surplus value.

One of the critical questions in this restructuring relates to the response of academics and students inside the system. In a reflection on the Autumn Statement, Andrew Westwood argued:

After all of the arguments about both the affordability and the desirability of a mass higher education system, George Osborne has come down firmly and decisively in favour of both. I thought we had lost that debate – that faith in mass human capital and the knowledge economy had been irreparably damaged. I was wrong and I’m pleased about that.

That should be something to celebrate.

This statement is distasteful because it reduces humanity to “mass human capital”. As I note elsewhere, it is actually a ”flagrantly despicable term to reduce people to”. However, economically it is also deeply flawed. The argument is that the worker’s labour power is her capital in the commodity form, and that education will help her to build that capital and deliver a return. As David Harvey notes, this might work in artisan/craft societies, but in the transition from craft to capitalist work this level of autonomy is restricted to capital alone as the automatic subject. The craftsman or artisan can only survive as she is able to sell her labour power in the market for a price, and to purchase her own means of reproducing that labour power. Her labour power is only capital in the hands of the capitalist. The worker is not able to make use of her skills, but sees these subsumed under the means of production of the capitalist class. She is therefore alienated from both her own labour power, which is used by the capitalist to extract surplus value, and from herself. The academic’s/student’s/worker’s skills are never their own autonomous capital. If they were human capital then they would be capable of returning interest. However, the academic/student/worker has to labour; she cannot live off the revenue that accrues from her alleged human capital.

There is no choice for the academic/student/worker but to labour as a form of coercion, and to upskill as an entrepreneur as a form of coercive practice. It is in-part as a negation of this coercion that we witness new “site[s] of occupations, strikes, road blocks and picket lines as students and workers rally against privatization.” Whilst these are related to specific issues to do with 3cosas, outsourcing, the privatisation and enclosure of university space, or cops off campus, as NovaraMedia note this is a specific reaction to the political management of austerity that is aimed as the dispossession of public, free space and time. It is designed to mobilise lives around the search for money. As Joseph Kay notes, this has ramifications for the idea of the University:

the choice to be inside the university is disappearing. Whether by escalating indebtedness, involuntary outsourcing, or indeed, summary suspension for political activity, exclusion from the university is making a comeback. At the same time, whether to be against the university is also becoming less of a choice, since the university, at least in its present form, is increasingly against us.

We confront the university less and less as a place of an idealised ‘Education’, and more and more as an exploitative boss, a spendthrift landlord, a creditor, and an instigator of violent repression. The blood on the pavement at UCL symbolises this shift.

Blood on the pavements of our universities is a marker that the State and its institutions will impose acceptance of indenture and a shift in incomes from the poor to the rich, and from the UK to London, and an attrition on real wages, and precarious employment, and ballooning unemployment, and the overcoming of stagnation through financial asset booms, credit-fuelled property ownership and exorbitant bourgeois consumption.

This reminds me that I wrote two years ago, pace John Holloway, about exodus either by Capital from any University that was in opposition to the dictates of the market, or by academics from the University as it was reinscribed for value:

The argument against this is that the constitutional view isolates the [University] from its social environment: it attributes to the [University] an autonomy of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the [University] does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the [University] does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any [University] that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from the [University] territory.

In the face of this reality, and that of cops on campus, I went on to state that:

Yet the University remains a symbol of places where mass intellectuality, or knowledge as our main socially-productive force, can be consumed/produced and contributed to by all. The University remains a symbol of the possibility that we can create sites of opposition and ontological critique, or where we can renew histories of denial and revolt, and where new stories can be told, against states of exception that enclose how and where and why we assemble, associate and organise.

Increasingly I doubt that this is the case. Increasingly I believe that the game is up, and that the crucial actions now is liberating participatory knowledge, practice, skills and organising principles, and forming co-operative associations that can begin to describe alternative forms of value beyond the market. As I wrote at the time of the last set of occupations:

academics need to consider their participatory traditions and positions, and how they actively contribute to the dissolution of their expertise as a commodity, in order to support other socially-constructed forms of production. How do students and teachers contribute to a re-formation of their webs of social interaction? How do students and teachers contribute to workerist and public dissent against domination and foreclosure?

As Kay notes: “we need to take the rage, and direct it into agitating and organising in our everyday lives.”

In this, Michael Roberts argues that we need to discuss value and organisation:

we must replace a system of production for profit and a society based on greed and self-interest with one that is commonly owned and planned for the needs of all and based on cooperation and support.

Academics need to consider how they contribute to a discussion about social reproduction that is post-capitalist co-ordination. That enables a “postcapitalist imagination”. The social is clearly possible, and we have countless examples of dissent and alternatives to neoliberalism, like: that currently being worked through in Ecuador; or in the ALBA grouping of nations; or in the Mondragon Co-operative; or in the Paris Commune; or in solidarity economies; or in the Social Science Centre; where the social relations of production might be refocused around associated workers rather than associated capitals. These examples, and those of students in occupation, offer hope that new social mechanisms or organising principles, which in turn enable solidarity networks to manage direct decision-making, might enable a transition to a different institutional structure as part of a transition to a complex, post-capitalist society.

In managing co-ordination, we might look at co-opting the principles of the very organisations in which we work, namely universities as pivots for associations of capitals. These associations not only produce means of production but also organise other means of production as inputs in a larger, networked production process. How might those principles, and in fact those means of production be co-opted and traded for use rather than exchange? The capitalist organisation of the University as an association of capitals addresses co-operation in terms of command and control. How might we co-opt this for co-operative ends and to create solidarity networks that might help us to manage issues of energy availability, climate change, poverty and so on, and more broadly the transition to a post-capitalist world? Where and how might academics and students recover their labour as a “postcapitalist imagination”?

On the domination of merchants in higher education

Merchants dominate producers now. Commercial capital and money-dealing capital dominate productive capital. The expropriation of surplus value from producers by merchant capital is a primary source of profit. In educational production, in the production of curriculum resources, in the funding of research centres, in the building of physical and technological infrastructures, in the deployment of learning analytics, in the management of the student loan book, do educators and/or students have hegemony? Do educators and/or students dominate the agenda? In the idea of open education or of the MOOC, who has power? When we are told that education must become effective or efficient or innovate, who is heard? In the deployment of organisational development or of lean systems thinking or of zero-hours contracts or of £9,000 fees, who has a voice and who is marginalised? 

It is worth re-thinking how merchant, credit and finance capital affect the inner workings of education, in particular as universities are being reconstructed as businesses. As they are being reconstructed as competing capitals, subject to the coercive logic of competition. And it is coercive. The coercive role of money as it is insinuated inside educational practice reinforces its own reification and more importantly fetishizes, for example, the student, or the entrepreneur or technology. As Pilling noted, Marx identified this idea of fetishisation as it flows through the bourgeois political economics of the kind that serves as analysis of the current crisis. He wrote:

under commodity production relations between men take the form of relations between ‘things’. The social relations are indirect relations, relations mediated through these things, and men simply ‘represent’ or ‘personify’ these things in the market place. Now Marx chastised the political economists for taking these forms ‘as given’ (by Nature) and not as social forms arising under definite historical conditions, forms which would therefore disappear under new social conditions. Those who accept the social relations of capital ‘uncritically’ in effect attribute to things in their immediate manifestation properties which, in point of fact, have nothing in common with this immediate material manifestation as such. The attention of Ricardo was directed almost exclusively to discovering the material base of definite social forms. These forms of social being were taken as read and therefore lying outside the scope of further analysis. It was Marx’s aim to discover the origin and development of these social forms assumed by the material-technical production process at a definite stage in the development of the productive forces.

In the current recalibration of education, we witness a media that denigrates public education and celebrates charter schools or academies, we witness a higher education for employment rather than for being, we witness a fetishisation of the student at the heart of the system, we witness think tanks related to global consultancies like McKinsey or PA or Pearson or to institutes like the IPPR calling for public/private partnerships and marketised open education. In each of these witnessings, we are unable to step away from the specificity of “broken education” (see, for example, this PA Consulting Delivering Education Reform paper), in order to critique the structures of domination, and who has power, and why. In pushing back against charter or free schools alone, or in pushing back against student-as-entrepreneur, or in pushing back against credit ratings for universities, we cannot possibly make sense of these individual aspects unless we develop a critique of how they relate to the generality of the reproduction of capital.

What we are witnessing for instance in the open education movement is its fetishisation as an open threshold of access, as low-cost of entry, as emancipatory, as freeing-up resources for “developing nations”. What we do not see is its co-option by commercial capital, in the form of global educational merchants like Coursera or EdX or FutureLearn, for the extraction of surplus value and for labour arbitrage and for commodity-dumping. Coursera states that it:

is an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. Our technology enables our partners to teach millions of students rather than hundreds. We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

Coursera then mediates flows of educational products that it does not produce, in terms of the content or pedagogies of its partners or the data that is harvested from its students. One interesting point here is that for-profit educational merchant capital drives the specific development of capitalist, educational production that is separated from the sphere of production. It is not based on direct exchange between producers and consumers, but on mediated and just-in-time provision. So it is subject to the same drives to maximise the extraction of surplus value from producers and products without contributing to the circuit of production, except in forms that enable speed-up or mobility.

In the case of FutureLearn this means developing an organisation structure that is exclusive and excluding of certain providers or producers, based on maximising profits. Thus, David Willetts argued:

FutureLearn is not accessible for all of our universities. They have taken a view about the universities that they are going to allow into FutureLearn, so the other universities are going to need another route if FutureLearn won’t have them and there are other providers around and of course, part of what they will offer is help in some of the analytics as well. I think this is coming up the agenda, because clearly other universities outside the Russell will want to go down the MOOC route as well, and I completely understand that, and if I were in their shoes I would want them to do it. So there are other platforms that you may want to join, where including, and I am sure included in their terms, will be assistance in the analytics that you need to get your courses online. 

In response Tim O’Shea noted that:

I think you were correctly cautious about the idea that the Government would intervene to support a particular platform provider, because there is a diversity of platform providers in the US, there is actually three in Silicon Valley, there is FutureLearn here, and then there are some free platforms, like Course Builder, that is provided by Google, so I think for the government to intervene would be messy.

In facilitating corporate power, intervention may be denied but in creating an education market through secondary legislation, state intervention is critical. Thus, open education or the MOOC or whatever technological or organisational innovation has to be critiqued, not in terms of student costs or empowerment or democratising of learning, but inside-and-against the flows of capital and the attempt to reassert stable forms of accumulation. Thus Sarah Grossman in the Chronicle relates the profusion of commercial MOOCs to international competition, the needs of venture capital for spaces in which to invest surpluses, and to the extraction of surplus value through education at work:

Japan’s answer to Coursera and edX, Schoo, announced this week that is had raised $1.5-million from venture-capital firms, including Itochu Technology Ventures, the Anri Fund, and the Incubate Fund. Offering more than 130 courses, Schoo is aimed at a Japanese audience of mainly office workers in their late 20s and early 30s.

The market, defined by corporates operating as commercial capitalists, is divorced from the realities of educational production as a social activity, and is recalibrated around the individual production and consumption of educational services and products. Thus, students are recalibrated not as social learners but as individual entrpreneurs able to access educational services and products in a global market.

However, what is also clear in this process of commercialising education is Marx’s view in Volume 3 of Capital that where merchant capital is hegemonic, then limits emerge in the spaces for productive or industrial capital. Marx argued that:

Within capitalist production merchant’s capital is reduced from its former independent existence to a special phase in the investment of capital, and the levelling of profits reduces its rate of profit to the general average. It functions only as an agent of productive capital. The special social conditions that take shape with the development of merchant’s capital, are here no longer paramount. On the contrary, wherever merchant’s capital still predominates we find backward conditions. This is true even within one and the same country, in which, for instance, the specifically merchant towns present far more striking analogies with past conditions than industrial towns.

The independent and predominant development of capital as merchant’s capital is tantamount to the non-subjection of production to capital, and hence to capital developing on the basis of an alien social mode of production which is also independent of it. The independent development of merchant’s capital, therefore, stands in inverse proportion to the general economic development of society.

Independent mercantile wealth as a predominant form of capital represents the separation of the circulation process from its extremes, and these extremes are the exchanging producers themselves. They remain independent of the circulation process, just as the latter remains independent of them

So Marx argued that where commercial capital and money capital dissolve previous forms of production and destroy the communities on which they were based, then they in-turn they become the community. So the public University is declared to be beyond hope and is under global pressure to reform, or become revolutionised as an organisational form for the accumulation of capital, be that social, cultural or commercial/financial. David Harvey refers to this as the “solvent effect” that is also conjunctural with the development of a world market, alongside flows of commodities, virtual trade, new colonialism, and the increasing subordination in this current phase of capitalism of production to trade and commerce. The domination of commercial capital over production is witnessed in: working conditions of outsourced employees, generally in the global South, in call centres and factories that produce consumer goods; the labour rights of those mining the raw materials that go into the same consumer goods; and the proliferation of zero-hour contracts, precarious employment and the generaton of a surplus population (witness the growing number of Ph.D.s with no chance of tenure or the UK’s free schools that can require no teaching qualifications). Witness Apple’s sub-contracting of labour to Pegatron and Foxconn and the recent claims made about labour costs and labour rights related to Taskrabbit, or the claims about labour arbitrage related to teachers, the use of adjunct labour and MOOCs.

However, as Marx writes in Volume 3, this also re-focuses us on the act of production, rather than on the circuits of money or commercial capital, as the truly revolutionary social activity. Thus, David Wiley’s call at #opened13for open education to save students a billion dollars cannot be seen as revolutionary or democratising. It needs to be critiqued as fetishistic. What does it tell us about who has power in the open education movement? What does it tell us about the roles of merchants, in the form of commercial and money-dealing capital, in the open education movement? What does it tell us about open education as a discourse of power where money drives the agenda? What does this tell us about our social relationships and the production of a pedagogy that is truly critical?

The problem with reducing open education to a discourse related to money is that far from enhancing democratisation, it reinforces the impact of proletarianisation noted above. So when Willetts argues for MOOCs as opening-up new markets for UK business, or when educators give keynotes that focus upon saving student money, or where educators celebrate conferences with partners in the petrochemical industry, transnational finance capital, the Rand Corporation and Pearson (as well as organisations more acceptable to left-leaning academics), it is important to ask about the role of power in the relationships that frame that educational space. Where does power lie between finance, merchant and productive capital, and the individual producers and consumers of educational products? The domination of commercial or finance capital drives low prices in the sphere of production, and that restructures organisational forms through efficiency drives or technological innovation. Where educational corporations control most of the surplus value that is produced they can define production (processes, labour rights, shifting indemnities, who manages risk). One of the outcomes of this is labour arbitrage and a refusal to negotiate with labour, or an attack on trades unions. As employment is made precarious amongst individuated and separated educational producers, collectivisation is negated and ultra-exploitation or proletarianisation emerges.

So we need to move away from fetishizing the MOOC or the student or the money savings that can be made or the democratising of educational life, to examine how merchants dominate over our educational experiences, inside a new world market that has been opened-up by both the nation State and transnational organisations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. We need to examine how our modern condition as labourers inside higher education is being revolutionised by technology and new organisational forms like MOOCs, as a result of the evolutionary processes that enable capitalism to overcome the limits imposed by crisis. These limits are socio-economic (fossil fuel depletion, climate change and so on) and are recalibrated as sustainable business or green growth, and they are economic in the current depression.

At issue for educators is how do we read this evolution? Is it to be fetishized as a specific and superficial function of the present? So do we really think that it is technology that is opening-up emancipatory or democratic educational possibilities? Or are those technologies and organisational forms a result of capital attempting to overcome the limits imposed by a falling rate of profit and labour relations? Is open education, in fact, to be analysed in terms of the general rules of motion of capitalism? Where money and commercial capital hold sway, as they do in the current condition, overcoming spatial and temporal barriers through mobility enable Capital to dominate over production and consumption. How should educators react?

However, there is a moment of hope. As Harvey (pace Marx) notes, merchant capital is predatory but it is subordinate to the production of surplus value, even if it controls those who produce it. Therefore, that merchant class and its financial co-operators have to make an ideology, media etc. in its corporate image, in order to underpin its power. This connects to Britt’s 14 points on the rise of the fascist state. As Jehu notes:

The present crisis arises from the fact that there is a mass of superfluous capital that cannot, under any circumstances, become real capital — that is, cannot produce surplus value and, therefore, profit. This mass of superfluous capital poses the constant threat to the mode of production of a general devaluation of the existing capital as a whole. If a general crisis of devaluation is to be avoided, the state must run deficits, i.e., it must spend more than it takes in in tax revenue. State deficit spending is, therefore, not determined by the needs of society (and, in particular, by the needs of the social producers), but by the needs of the owners of capital, who, if they are to avoid a nominal devaluation of this superfluous capital, must hand it over to the state to be consumed unproductively in return for interest payments.

The question is how to reveal and critique the material conditions of the working class, including those of teachers, educators and students, as they are subordinate to autonomous commercial and/or finance capital. How is it possible to recuperate the autonomy of educational producers in a way that pushes back against the hegemony of venture capital or MOOC providers acting as commercial capitalists? Is it possible to develop forms and stories of co-operative production and consumption that are beyond the money-form or cost savings? Is it possible to critique the idea of public rather than open education, and as a result to liberate skills, knowledges and practices against their marketization, and where they do not act to drive down wages through speed-up, or labour mobility, or the creation of proprietary skills that can be commodified? Is it possible to push-back against the use of open education to create a reserve army, or surplus population, of skilled workers as a disciplinary tool on wages?

The links between commercial educational providers and universities, educators and students as producers and consumers of educational services, data and products, demonstrate power and dependency. This complex interdependency is not reducible to fetishized ideas of money via cost-savings or emancipation based on learning for a life of capitalist work. It links to ideas of the reproduction of capital within limits or barriers, and the current condition inside-and-against education demonstrates how crises re-establish the limits and conditions existing in the system as a totality and in the circuits of productive, money and commodity capital. Moreover, we are witnessing the attempt by finance and commercial capital to synchronise production with their own circuits. This is an uncomfortable symbiosis, as those of us engaged in a higher education that is being restructured by the dictates of finance capital and a new market can attest.

At issue is whether we can help students to develop the analytical tools that enable them to understand the interdependencies of this world and thereby to critique power. Can we help them to change the world in the face of capital as the automatic subject, and against the dominance of our educational lives by finance and commercial capital?

On money, labour and academic co-operation

As David Kernohan has argued over at Followers of the Apocalypse, the Coalition is busy re-writing history in the name of its cultural revolution. This is usefully applied to David Willetts’ recent pamphlet for the Social Market Foundation, Robbins Revisited. The pamphlet made me think of three things.

ONE. This is a clear manifestation of the subsumption of academic research, in particular about progression into higher education and about pedagogic practice, for policy that is based on re-engineering society for market principles. Whilst networks exist (here from policy maker to think-tank) to promote those privatised principles in spaces that were/are publically-regulated, funded and governed, a critical question is whether it is possible to nurture networks that push-back against this hegemonic position? Whether this will happen in think-tanks whose policy advisory boards represent the structural hegemonic power of the media, politicians and academia is questionable. Are we able to create activist literacies through co-operation that connect academics and disaffection in society?

TWO. Willetts’ pamphlet pivots around money, productivity and data-informed choice. Notably, he writes the following.

The expansion in higher education has had little impact on the considerable positive graduate earnings premium, which today stands at comfortably over £100,000 (p. 18)

a one per cent increase in the share of the workforce with a university degree raises long-run productivity by between 0.2 per cent and 0.5 per cent, which implies that at least one-third of the increase in UK labour productivity between 1994 and 2005 was due to the growing number of people with a university degree (p. 19)

One reason for this exceptional performance [in research] is that over the past twenty years the academic community and governments have created very strong competitive funding… However there was no matching incentive to focus on teaching. Universities had a fixed allocation of student places which most could fill almost regardless of the offer they made to students. The student experience suffered… The introduction of higher fees covered by income-contingent loans has stopped this decline (p. 36)

Students aren’t merely buying a degree, as they might a holiday. They are engaging in something inherently worthwhile and also investing in their future. The paradox is that unleashing the forces of consumerism with more information for prospective students and funding following their choices is the best way of bringing back traditional academic focus on high-quality teaching (p. 36)

The clear breakdown of work commitments for each course now provided to all students and parents – including the percentage of time spent on independent study – gives them a realistic idea of what to expect, as well as an important basis for judging institutions (p. 37)

Institutions can lay on extra lectures – but this is unlikely to result in more satisfied students with a better grasp of their subject. This brings us back to Robbins, and his analysis not just of teaching time, but of the time spent in discussion periods (p. 40)

This is a very useful pointer for us as we review how we might extend the Key Information Set data in the future. Asking institutions to provide a breakdown of the average number of discussion classes for each course – broken down as Robbins suggests into tutorials, small seminars and large seminars – would allow students and parents to judge courses by the sort of teaching they value (p. 44)

One option would be for the Key Information Set data to mirror what was available to Robbins fifty years ago, with a requirement for institutions to specify how many essays or how much work students can expect to have marked on each course – and whether feedback will be written or discussed (p. 46)

Without radical changes to how universities were financed however it was going to be difficult to change their behaviour. Now there is an opportunity to use our funding changes to push a real cultural change back towards teaching (p. 47)

It is not for ministers to dictate what subjects universities offer – nor the subjects that students choose to study. Yet given that going to university can change your life, it is quite right that students and parents should think hard about which institution and course is right for them. That is why we are requiring universities to provide more information than ever. Students now have easy access to comparable information on everything from employment outcomes for particular courses to how satisfied students are with course assessment or feedback (p. 55)

Yet a report from 8th October by technology consultancy Gartner made some startling predictions for IT Organizations and Users for 2014 and Beyond, which materially affect Willetts’ assumptions and assertions. These include:

  • The organising principles that underpin how academic/student data is regulated and used;
  • The labour relations that underpin employment in the increasingly digitised and stratified economies of the global North;
  • Predictions about the economic utility of higher education as a positional good that is based solely on income.

In particular Gartner focused upon the impact on labour and labour-relations of technological changes linked to the digital economy, smart machines and consumerisation. It noted the need to engage with “disruptive shifts [] coming at an accelerated pace and at a global level of impact.” This impact is predicted to be deeply political and based on economic disenfranchisement. The report goes on as follows.

Gartner’s digital business predictions focus on the effect digital business will have on labor reductions, on consumer goods revenue, and on use of personal data [emphasis added]… Engineers, scientists, IT professionals and marketers at consumer goods companies are engaging crowds much more aggressively and with increasing frequency using digital channels to reach a larger and more anonymous pool of intellect and opinion. Gartner sees a massive shift toward applications of crowdsourcing, enabled by technology, such as: advertising, online communities, scientific problem solving, internal new product ideas, and consumer-created products.

By 2020, the labor reduction effect of digitization will cause social unrest and a quest for new economic models in several mature economies. Near Term Flag: A larger scale version of an “Occupy Wall Street”-type movement will begin by the end of 2014, indicating that social unrest will start to foster political debate.

Digitization is reducing labor content of services and products in an unprecedented way, thus fundamentally changing the way remuneration is allocated across labor and capital [emphasis added]. Long term, this makes it impossible for increasingly large groups to participate in the traditional economic system — even at lower prices — leading them to look for alternatives such as a bartering-based (sub)society, urging a return to protectionism or resurrecting initiatives like Occupy Wall Street, but on a much larger scale. Mature economies will suffer most as they don’t have the population growth to increase autonomous demand nor powerful enough labor unions or political parties to (re-)allocate gains in what continues to be a global economy.

The escalation of consumer awareness of data collection practices has set the stage for offering consumers more control over the disposition of personal data — collected both online and offline. As increasing demand and scarcity drives up the value of such data, incentives grow to entice consumers to share it voluntarily.

Smart Machines The emergence of smart machines adds opportunity and fear as “cognizant and cognitive systems” and can enhance processes and decision making, but could also remove the need for humans in the process and decision effort. CIOs will see this as a means of delivering greater efficiency, but will have to balance between the active human workforce and the cold efficiency of machines that can learn [emphasis added].

Gartner forecasts that smart machines will upend a majority of knowledge workers’ career paths by 2020 [emphasis added]. Smart machines exploit machine learning and deep-learning algorithms. They behave autonomously, adapting to their environment.

In her outstanding Ph.D. thesis onThe State Machine : politics, ideology, and computation in Chile, 1964-1973”, Jessica Miller Medina highlighted how the Allende Government in Chile attempted to utilize technology and data (through cybernetics) to create a new representation of society beyond the market, using different, co-operative organizing principles. The key for Miller Medina was to describe

not just a technological history but a history of the changing social networks that connected these technologies to the function of the state and its management (p. 17).

Moreover, her work reminds us to see the technological and technocratic ideas of Gartner and Willetts as means to “solidify a particular articulation of the state that was supported by new claims to legitimate power” (p. 96). Thus, she quotes Allende (p. 252) arguing for democratic renewal:

We set out courageously to build our own [cybernetic] system in our own spirit. What you will hear about today is revolutionary – not simply because this is the first time it has been done anywhere in the world. It is revolutionary because we are making a deliberate effort to hand to the people the power that science commands, in a form in which the people can themselves use it.

This is increasingly critical in the world described by Gartner, where large proportions of society are subsumed under a system in which they cannot participate, and against which they demand to push-back. It also makes it critical that the academic world described by Willetts, which is reduced to money and data, is refused. Clearly this refusal needs to reflect the fact that Willetts’ argument for debt-driven study and choice risks the creation of indentured lives. Debt-driven study is in-part based on the demand for entrepreneurial education that delivers economic impact inside a society organised around the market. But what is the value of that inside economies in the global North that are de-developing, or in the face of risks to the US economy of attacks on the dollar as the global reserve currency (especially from China and Russia), or where capital intensity and reduced productivity/wages become the norm, or where jobs are leveraged or outsourced, or where commodity skills are in short supply?

One response might be to open-up a discussion about the link between the production of a higher education that is against-and-beyond indenture, and that is described by alternative, co-operative organising principles. In this way, Willetts (p. 47) might do well to understand the ramifications of the University of Lincoln’s curriculum that driven by the idea of student-as-producer, not just through banal connections between teaching-and-research for new inventions or productivity or entrepreneurialism, but in its democratic intentions and organising principles.

THREE. We need to discuss Ecuador and the environment, not just because of the IPCC’s recent report on climate change or the Royal Society’s People and Planet Report, but because addressing global problems demands more than the poverty of the market. Willetts cannot see beyond this space:

Many developing countries have extraordinary ambitions to expand the number of people entering higher education, and at a great pace. British institutions are well-placed to help, and it is fortuitous that we now have MOOCs to help achieve these ambitions. The jury is still out on whether there will be one or two dominant platforms or whether there will be several diverse names (p. 68).

In The Republic of Ecuador’s National Plan for Good Living 2009-2013: Building a Plurinational and Intercultural State, the Government argues for five interconnected revolutions: democratic; ethical; economic; social; and Latin American dignity; in order to build a fraternal and co-operative coexistence. In part, this is based on “The transformation of higher education and the transfer of knowledge in science, technology and innovation.” The plan explicitly critiques neoliberal market-driven solutions to problems, and attempts to tie education to co-operative, democratic renewal that will in turn overcome inequalities. The aim is:

The combination of ancestral forms of knowledge with state-of-the-art technology can reverse the current development model and contribute to the transition towards a model of accumulation based on bio-knowledge.

This aim of linking environmental to historical and cultural knowledge through a democratic agenda based on equality not the liberal sop of equality of opportunity, is further realised in Ecuador’s recent announcement that Michael Bauwens of the Peer-to -Peer Foundation will join “a major strategic research project to “fundamentally re-imagine Ecuador” based on the principles of open networks, peer production and commoning… The project seeks to “remake the roots of Ecuador’s economy, setting off a transition into a society of free and open knowledge.”

What remains for academics in the global North is to resist and push-back against the tyranny of the rule of money and the marketisation of everyday life, in order to explore whether another, co-operative way is possible. This means an activist stance in-and-beyond capitalist work that strives for the common. Refusing the Coalition’s agenda for higher education, through alternative projects like the Social Science Centre or critiques/negation/occupation of the REF or of open pedagogy or whatever, is a start. However, the realisation that technology consultants like Gartner are focused on the political and economic marginalisation of large swaths of the global population, and concomitant social unrest, ought to sharpen our thinking about the lived, transnational realities of capitalism and the need to describe and reveal alternatives. We have access to alternatives based on different organising principles, and these historically and geographically distinct examples need to be rehabilitated and discussed. The question is whether collectively we have the courage.