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.


Technology and co-operative practice against the neoliberal university

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

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


On 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.


The Digilit Leicester Project

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

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

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

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

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

Digilit Leicester has achieved the following.

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

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

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


Educational technology, academic labour and a pedagogy for class struggle

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

There is a fuller paper here.

My slides are here.

I intend to make the following points.

ONE: on social control and the wage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWO: on academic labour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOUR: technology and the curriculum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIVE: for a critical pedagogy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Educational technology and the enclosure of academic labour inside public higher education

I have a new paper published over at the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies (JCEPS). The Journal is non-profit making and open, and is a space for Marxist and other Left analysis of education.

My article picks up some of the themes I have been playing around with here, and is titled: Educational technology and the enclosure of academic labour inside public higher education. The abstract is appended below.

Across higher education in the United Kingdom, the procurement and deployment of educational technology increasingly impacts the practices of academic labour, in terms of administration, teaching and research. Moreover the relationships between academic labour and educational technology are increasingly framed inside the practices of neoliberal, transnational activist networks, which are re-defining UK higher education as a new model public service. This paper highlights the mechanisms through which educational technologies are used to control, enclose and commodify academic labour. At issue is whether academics and academic staff developers have a critical or ethical lens through which to critique the nature of the technologies that they use and re-purpose inside the University, and whether such a critique might enable technologies to be deployed for the production of socially-useful knowledge, or knowing, beyond monetization in the knowledge economy.


Some notes towards a co-operative pedagogy of struggle

ONE: neoliberalism as a global pedagogy of dispossession

Neoliberalism is a global pedagogical project aimed at the dispossession of free time, and education is a central institutional means for its realisation. This project aims at reinscribing all of social life inside the market and for the extraction of value. Thus, education is a central institutional means for production and control, that is embedded in the fabric of neoliberalism’s social production, and that amplifies its effects. For Stephen Ball it is important to recognise both the factors that make-up neoliberalism, and the mechanisms through which it is enacted. Ball analyses several factors of neoliberalism (pp. 3-4).

  • The economisation of everyday, social life, in order to realise new opportunities for profit.
  • Reconfiguring governance through an appeal to the entrepreneurial self, with the State as regulator and market-maker.
  • The State acting transnationally in concert with supranational bodies like the IMF, the European Central Bank and the World Bank, imposes the control that a free market desires, and removes impediments to the logic of the market.
  • There are several active waves of neo-liberalism: proto (the intellectual project of Hayek and Friedman); roll-back (of Keynesianism); and roll-out (of new state forms, modes of governance and regulation).
  • The creation and extraction of value is predicated upon mobility and connectivity.
  • The (networked) structures that enable neoliberalism are polymorphic and isomorphic.

According to Ball (pp. 12-13), these factors are carried or spread via transnational advocacy networks or TANS, motivated by shared values steeped in marketization and the private, in order to leverage tacit or active consent through: information politics (the ability to call-up data quickly); symbolic politics (the ability to tell meaningful, common sense stories); leverage politics (the ability to call on powerful actors); and accountability politics (the ability to use the rule of money to bring pressure on political actors). This process connects and reveals networks of co-operation seeking to co-opt education for-profit, from philanthropic groups sponsoring MOOCs in concert with academics, through to activist groups like The Heritage Foundation, which declares: 

Subtly or overtly, each generation passes American exceptionalism to the next, be it through innovations like Henry Ford and his assembly line; or Thomas Edison and the light bulb; or Steve Jobs and the iPhone, iPod and iPad; or through the encouraging words of parents to their children, assuring them that they can grow up to be anything they like if they put their minds to it and work hard.

Revealing this process in a participatory way matters because, as I noted about whether universities care too much about students:

We are witnessing a recalibration and enclosure of the idea of the student, not as a co-operative, associational subject, but as a neoliberal agent, whose future has become indentured. This subject is individuated, enclosed and disciplined through her debts and is enmeshed inside a pedagogy of debt, in order that s/he becomes entrepreneurial in her endeavours and outlook. The idea of education… is of indentured study, where the risk of failure is not borne socially, but is transferred to the individual. Thus, the [UK Coalition Government] seeks to extend New Labour’s choice agenda, driven by metrics, data and money, as the university is restructured as a new public service. In this way the student-as-entrepreneur, and data/analytics about satisfaction, retention, progression etc. are used as mechanisms to discipline academic labour. The relationships between academic and student are recalibrated in the face of the rule of money and the cybernetic techniques that underpin it…

This type of problem-based thinking ignores politics and ideology, and is based around the kind of risk-management and algorithm-based high frequency trading that underpins entrepreneurial activity in the financial markets. It is almost wholly divorced from the realities of the humane relationships that academics seek to develop with their students. The corporatisation of data, underscored by profit, negates our humanity.

There are then, as series of tensions inside the University. The University is a confused space that is being restructured around money, profit, performance management, customer relationship management and so on. It is from inside this new public service that [Michael] Gove declared that he wished students to benefit from “the incredible number of opportunities offered by twenty-first century capitalism.” This is the fantasy of the entrepreneurial student inside the treadmill logic of business-as-usual.

Critical then, is an understanding of how cybernetic techniques abstract our everyday existences as students-teachers so that they are controlled and entrepreneurial. The step-beyond that is to describe how critical pedagogies of co-operation and association might be developed that are public, radical and participatory. Or, as Thorburn argues, we need to find mechanisms for actually existing autonomy.

TWO: the Cybernetic Hypothesis as pedagogic project

For Marx in the Grundrisse, as the general intellect of society was appropriated by capital through the application of science and then congealed inside machinery, techniques and technologies for control became crucial. In particular, a culture was created inside which both the high-speed circulation of commodities could become a normatively good thing, and unproductive time was perceived to be unethical. One outcome of this process was the use of technologies to open-up and monitor labour, including academic scholarship, in order that production processes could be systematised and made more lean or efficient. Thus, the collective Tiqqun argued that:

That is to say, cybernetics is not, as we are supposed to believe, a separate sphere of the production of information and communication, a virtual space superimposed on the real world. No, it is, rather, an autonomous world of apparatuses so blended with the capitalist project that it has become a political project, a gigantic “abstract machine” made of binary machines run by the Empire, a new form of political sovereignty, which must be called an abstract machine that has made itself into a global war machine.

As a result, technology has become increasingly inserted inside hierarchies of control, so that judgements about performance can be exerted instantaneously and systemic risk reduced. The overlaying of technological determinants onto societies that can be connected through these flows of data and networks encourages a universal belief in rationality; that the only path to truth is through big data and learning analytics, rather than co-operative judgement.

Thus, as Joss Winn in his notes on The Cybernetic Hypothesis, states:

Cybernetics as manifest in the Internet, ICT and the ‘new economy’, has definitively supplanted the liberal hypothesis. Cybernetics includes liberalism and at the same time transcends it. The critique of liberalism is no longer worth the effort because liberalism is obsolete, nothing more than a ‘residual justification’ for the crimes of the ‘new model’, that is cybernetics.

The development of technocratic, data-driven structures that manage risk and promote control underpins the cybernetic hypothesis. The emergence of cybernetics focused upon the science of control mechanisms, through which the exchange of information would create stability. This is especially important in maintaining the hegemonic power of transnational finance capital through a system that uses digital technologies like high-frequency algorithms to make decisions at high speed. In legitimating an expanding system of hierarchical control that protects the momentum of an inflationary system, information-work and the use of data-mining or analytics to generalise, monitor and control behaviours is vital.

Education forms a critical new terrain inside which high technology is used for control. This includes developing new services like learning analytics, implementing mechanisms for performance management, and predicting futures as educational spaces become financialised through student loans and bonds. Technology is used to reinforce regimes of biopower that seek the panoptic monitoring, surveillance and measurement of all activity. In this view, cybernetics is ‘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’ (Miller Medina, 2005, p. 17). Thus, economic and technological interdependence restrict human agency and the possibilities for emancipation because cybernetic rationality demands and reinforces certain digital and material behaviours, practices, attributes and competencies. In turn, this crystallises the power of technocrats, administrators or education corporations for risk management, as well as the identification of entrepreneurial behavours.

The fight against forms of cybernetic control is not one of destroying or refusing high technology, but rather focuses upon using technology and technique to reveal the internal, totalising dynamics of capitalism. From this position, alternatives rooted in self-organisation and a societal complexity based on variety, improbability, and adaptability emerge. For Tiqqun, this forms the negation of the cybernetic hypothesis through a return to what it means to be human. A critical role for educationalists using technology inside-and-against the cybernetic hypothesis is to develop educational opportunities that highlight the development of counter-narratives of commons, co-operation, sharing, and openness, and against the separation and alienation of money, price, quality, and competition. As Tronti (p. 105) argued, at issue is the extent to which the forms of control that pervade human existence inside the social factory can be revealed and alternatives critiqued so that ‘capital itself [] becomes uncovered, at a certain level of its development, as a social power’.

This uncovering of a social power with a desire for order, certitude and totality, has been revealed increasingly as a new governance mentality: the crisis revealed as PRISM; or as mastering the internet; as the State’s securitisation of capitalist social relations; and as the Defence Cyber Protection Partnership, which “is being positioned as a model that other industries can replicate to shore up their security.” This is governmentality through cybernetics in the face of the secular crisis:

the problem that capital faces in managing the antagonism of the working class is that of managing not only a shared (though not necessarily allied or even complementary) resistance but also diverse processes of self-constitution repeatedly escaping its rules and precipitating crisis. Capital accumulation requires that capitalist command (thesis) internalize the hostile self-activities of the working class (antithesis) and convert them into contradictions (synthesis) capable of providing dynamism to what is basically a lifeless set of rules/constraints.

On one level, as Joss Winn argues, “Cybernetics entered into the operation of capitalism with the intention of minimizing uncertainties, incommensurability, the kinds of anticipation problems that can interfere in any commodity transaction. It contributes to consolidating the basis for the installation of capitalism’s mechanisms, to oiling Capital’s abstract machine.” On another, as Tiqqun noted cybernetics and systems thinking enable the State to introduce surveillance and data capture devices in the “construction of a decentralised real-time gridding system. The common intent of these devices is total transparency, an absolute correspondence between the map and the territory, a will to knowledge accumulated to such degree that it becomes a will to power.” This neoliberal will-to-power forms an abstract pedagogic project.

THREE: an abstract pedagogic project.

Werner Bonefeld has argued that in order to understand the operating and organising principles on which capitalism is based, we need to understand the processes through which labour or work inside capitalism is abstracted and the relationship of abstraction with time. Understanding time is critical because it underpins how we analyse the production, circulation and exchange of commodities, and their relationship to value or the production of surplus value. Critiquing this is pedagogically powerful, and sits in antithesis to the pedagogical imperative of neoliberalism to abstract life and surplus value. Social production in capitalism is based on the use of labour-power to produce commodities that can be exchanged in the market and realise value that can be set in motion once more as Capital. Thus, Bonefeld quotes Marx’s work in the Critique (vol. 29, p. 286) that ‘[o]n the one hand, commodities must enter the exchange process as objectified universal labour time, on the other hand, the labour time of individuals becomes objectified universal labour time only as a result of the exchange process’. The reality of this is the deep interconnections between processes of production, circulation and exchange, and time, because capitalist social relations emerge from a tension between those who would invoke time-based efficiencies to raise the rate of surplus value extraction and those fighting for more free-time. Time is money and money is time. Bonefeld states:

If then, capitalism reduces everything to time, an abstract time, divisible into equal, homogeneous, and constant units that move on from unit to unit, dissociated from concrete human circumstances and purposes, then, time really is everything. If ‘time is everything, [then] man is nothing; he is, at the most, time’s carcase’ (Marx, 1976, p. 127). Marx expresses the same idea in Capital arguing that the worker is ‘nothing more then [sic.] personified labour-time’ (1983, p. 233). (Bonefeld, 2010, p. 7).

This process of abstraction is critical and it is reinforced educationally. Abstract labour as it is revealed inside-and-against exchange in the circulation of commodities has a value related to time, and specifically as that time is described socially in the market. Central to this idea of abstraction as against concrete labour is the social character of labour in capitalism. Capitalism consists of private labour, purchased for its ability to become labour-power, which under the direction of the capitalist becomes “directly social in its character… [as] socially determined individual production” (Marx, Grundrisse, p. 83). The process of exchange reveals the value of the commodity and the socially-defined time that went into it. As Bonefeld notes (pp. 10-11), this demands equality between commodities in the market based upon time: “Exchange cannot take place without equality, and equality not without commensurability… What the commodities have therefore in common is human labour in the abstract and this labour comprises a purely social reality.” This social reality is based on labour-time expended, and in the drive for productivity or value-for-money or against idle-time, time subsumes people as individual labourers.

This subsumption is driven by the fact that the measure of value is socially necessary labour-time, which objectifies or abstracts the individual from her self. In the production of commodities this labour-power is abstracted from the labourer, and abstracts her from her labour, her products, her time, and her self. Marx (Capital, Vol. 1) viewed socially necessary labour-time as the source of all value. Rather than being conceived of as units of labour measured in hours or days, it is conceived as the amount of labour time required by a worker (or academic/student) of average productivity (and therefore skill), working with tools (like learning technologies) of the average productive potential, required to produce a given commodity (inside the cybernetic hypothesis this might include immaterial, informational or data-driven commodities). Thus, in the higher education context, more-skilled academics reduce the average time and increase productivity, whilst unskilled academics contribute less social value. The current discourse around the knowledge economy, focused upon generating new, technical skills for jobs that have not yet emerged in the name of economic growth, forms part of this agenda. Abstraction is thus a pedagogic project, enforced through neoliberal politics and the mechanics of cybernetics.

Revealing the relationships between increasingly abstracted labour and reduced socially necessary labour time enables value to be seen as a complex social relation, rather than a material practice. This also reveals the pedagogic principles behind the repetition of technology and its automation of creative tasks that abstract academic work from the staff and students engaged in those practices. This level of abstraction of the academic’s labour-power from the process and reality of capitalist work enables social domination, which is impersonal, increasingly rationalised, and managerially constrained. Technology in the knowledge economy reveals how the autonomy and agency of academics and students as knowledge workers can be marginalised where they have no proprietary knowledge that adds to a university’s relative surplus value. Moreover, techniques and technologies enables capital, in the various forms of higher education, to disperse production organisationally through home-working, outsourcing, MOOCs and privatisation into society, in order to remove academic labour’s collective, social power.

This then refocuses pedagogy on the production of the abstracted, entrepreneurial individual capable of regulating herself against abstracted time, both in the here-and-now of producing commodities, and in the indentured future that demands that fees-as-debts are paid-back. Both the present and the future are claimed for Capital as abstracted labour. It is crucial for the expansion of the system based upon value-in-motion, or the extraction of surplus value, that this abstract version of labour working in an universe of abstracted time, is maintained. This rests on the control exerted over labour’s collective, social power. The discipline of the market demands the discipline of capitalist time, more productive labour-time, and a reduction of free-time. Capturing free-time and alienating it from the individual so that it becomes productive of surplus value in some form (through commodifying new services, analytics, relationship management and so on) is a critical, neoliberal, pedagogic project. A question is then, is it possible to liberate time and sociability from capital? If so, can this be enacted co-operatively? 

FOUR: for a pedagogy of struggle

Liberating time from Capital demands really existing autonomy. It demands struggle. For Tiqqun:

“Autonomy” means that we make the worlds that we are grow. The Empire, armed with cybernetics, insists on autonomy for it alone, as the unitary system of the totality: it is thus forced to annihilate all autonomy whenever it is heterogeneous. We say that autonomy is for everyone and that the fight for autonomy has to be amplified. The present form taken on by the civil war is above all a fight against the monopoly on autonomy. That experimentation will become the “fecund chaos,” communism, the end of the cybernetic hypothesis.”

For Miller Medina (p. 22), attempting to recover the governing principles in Chile from 1964-73, “This history, therefore, is 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.” Moreover, the deployment of technologies throughout the State’s institutions “helped solidify a particular articulation of the state that was supported by new claims to legitimate power” (Miller Medina, p. 96). This is not necessarily the co-option of institutions, technologies and techniques for Capital. The example of Chile under President Allende offers a critical analysis of a different possibility. Miller Medina (p. 252) quotes Allende:

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.

Yet Miller Medina (p. 333) also demonstrates how co-operative technical and technological practices tend to be co-opted in the name of repression:

After the military coup in 1973 the Pinochet government used computer technology in the service of its political repression, surveillance, and disappearance, policies that were part of Operation Condor. Although we are still uncovering information on Operation Condor and do not know the full extent of this cooperative intelligence network, available documents from U.S. and Latin American archives describe the Condor data bank — modeled after the police network Interpol, without its judicial safeguards — and the encrypted Condortel telex network.

One of the questions for radical academics is how to bring alive the co-operative, participatory histories and traditions that have existed, in order to reveal possible alternatives to the neoliberal pedagogic project. This involves uncovering the mechanisms through which academics and practitioners are empowered to say “no” through networks of solidarity and co-operative practices. These examples might include critiques of the following. 

  • The governance principles that underpin the responses of the Co-operative movement to the crisis, not in order to re-establish business-as-usual, but to demonstrate actually existing co-operative, social production.
  • The transnational nature of the co-operatives movement, and the importance of associational democracy in social production and consumption. How might these associational networks enable organic intellectuals to emerge and new ideas to take root against hegemony?
  • The situated, local importance of community co-operative learning trusts as networks of mutual support, like the Burton Co-operative Learning Trust or the Cornwall schools co-operative. Is it possible to use such co-operatives to challenge, occupy and reinvent ideas of impact, observation, gifted-and-talented, school improvement etc.? How might extended partnerships of young people, providers, educators, academics, businesses, parents, work in peer-support groups and wider networks to refuse to be subject to value-in-motion?
  • The models for mutualism that exist in football governance through industrial and provident societies and community interest companies. How might these act as nodes of solidarity that enable association to reinforce co-operative, social production of free-time away from the market?

At issue is whether actions that demonstrate the solidarity of liberation can form a pedagogic project that forms a lived social critique of capitalism, in order to offer an alternative vision for society. In educational terms this then questions whether there are other co-operative governing principles for universities or for higher education at the level of society. This demands that we ask what education is, before we ask what it is for, and it that we see education as a process of becoming that refuses socially-necessary labour time and abstracted labour. It also demands that we liberate free time, and this takes courage in the face of the discipline of the State and the market enacted cybernetically through analytics, big data, biometrics, drones, and attenuated ideas of privacy.

One part of this approach to liberation is to think about mechanisms that disrupt the circuits and production of capital as a social system. These may include renewing Ball’s neoliberal factors co-operatively.

  • The sociability of everyday life, in order to realise new opportunities for co-operation and against value.
  • Reconfiguring governance through an appeal to the co-operating self, with the public and the mutual at its heart.
  • Co-operatives acting transnationally in association and mutuality, to define alternative value-forms that are against the logic of the market.
  • To consider several active waves of co-operation: proto (revealing the intellectual project of the socio-cultural histories of co-operatives); roll-back (of neoliberalism); and roll-out (of new co-operative forms, modes of governance and regulation).
  • The creation and extraction of co-operation is predicated upon mutualism and association rather than individuated mobility and connectivity.
  • The mutual structures that enable co-operation are polymorphic and isomorphic.

In this process we might reduce abstraction and witness new forms of sociability based upon co-operating, rather than having our time and labour co-opted. A different way of connecting our fragmentary natures beyond the market may enable humanity to be made concrete and celebrated. A refusal of abstraction and individuation entails a refusal of the cybernetic hypothesis that maintains the neoliberal pedagogic project. In critiquing the relationships between the individual and the State-market duality in Discipline and Punish, Foucault (p. 138) argued that “These relationships take the form of a multiplicity of often minor processes, of different origin and scattered location across and beyond the state. These overlap, repeat, or imitate one another according to their domain of application, they converge and gradually produce the blueprint of a general method.” The question is whether co-operative education might enable spaces and times (or space-times) for life to be lived as an associational, mutual, transitional process, rather than as an outcomes-based blueprint.


Talk: The challenges of resilient learning and the production of a university experience

On Thursday 20th June, I’m keynoting the University of the West of Scotland Learning and Teaching Conference. My talk is entitled:

The challenges of resilient learning and the production of a university experience

My slides are here.

The Spotify playlist that accompanies the talk is here.

The talk is a triptych: hope; despair; and courage (#solidarity).

The talk may follow this path:

  1. We are told that business-as-usual has been disrupted but that there is no alternative to finding new mechanisms for growth. We hide from the narrative that it is easier to imagine the end-of-the-world than it is to imagine the end-of-capitalism. Yet this state of grace is all we are taught, and even worse it feels like it is all that we imbibe with our mother’s milk.
  2. Hope: if only we can find the superhero inside, who is able to mange debt and disruption, and in the process become resilient, there would be no need for alternatives. Maybe resilience gives us hope?
  3. Despair: look behind the curtain and you see: the crash in real wages; a student debt bubble; rising youth unemployment; the State and its institutions disciplining and delegitimizing its students’ voices; energy and environmental crises; and an outpouring of anger. Is this what business-as-usual looks like? Is there really no alternative? Will becoming resilient make a difference?
  4. Courage (#solidarity): how do we work to make hope possible? What can we learn from critical pedagogy? What can we learn from historical and current alternatives? How do we look beyond the market and the knowledge economy, to manage our historical materialism in association and democratically? How do we liberate knowledge from the University for global knowing? How does hope rest on courage?

And what, exactly, is the role of the University in this process of disruption and in making alternatives?

I am indebted to Joss Winn, Mike Neary, Sarah Amsler and Andrew McGettigan for helping me to find some slides/images, some words and some courage.


Making the Cloud work for you: institutional risk and governance

On Thursday I am presenting at BETT13 on “Making the Cloud work for you”, with a subtitle of “institutional risk and governance”.

My presentation is here: http://slidesha.re/11OHwoK

These are my notes for those slides, which are a mix of a case study of learning and teaching a De Montfort University and an approach to personal/institutional risk.

SLIDE 3: thinking about the pedagogic development of cloud-based technologies has amplified issues around the following [risks].

  1. How does the use of cloud-based technologies affect how an institution maintains a level of curriculum control or control of curriculum change-management processes? Control might be required for quality assurance, curriculum transparency or accountability. Where academic autonomy and the use of technologies in the curriculum is devolved, how do cloud-based technologies affect ad hoc curriculum design/delivery, as opposed to strategic control. How do staff digital/technical literacies affect this approach? What are the implications where staff are operating beyond a hosted/in-house LMS?
  2. How do institutions support/nurture in-house skills development? Do they focus on what is of quality or is distinctive or is interesting, and then outsource or migrate that which is deemed boring (depending on risks to data etc.)?
  3. How do institutions analyse and prepare for elasticity of demand and new service-provision, where technologies or techniques are in the cloud? How d they focus on developing technologies that will enable emerging and future web applications?

SLIDE 4: this is DMU’s Core/Arranged/Recommended/Recognised technology model. This is defined as follows:

Core: integrated corporate systems, including the Blackboard VLE, the staff/student portal, library management systems, MS Lync, streaming media (the DMU video server), dropbox facilities like Zend, and the DMU Commons (our.dmu), are available to students/staff to use with the devices and services of their choosing, and extended through tools that the institution arranges, recommends or recognises.

Arranged: accounts are created on key plug-ins or extensions beyond the core, like plagiarism detection tools (Turnitin), external blogs and wikis, like Campus Pack, and synchronous classrooms (WizIQ, WebEx).

Recommended: recommendations are made with supporting training materials, for connecting key, web-based tools into the core/arranged mix. This might include using RSS to bring in content from Twitter, SlideShare, iTunes or YouTube, or supporting SKYPE.

Recognised: the institution is aware that students and staff are experimenting with other technologies and maintains a horizon-scanning brief, until and unless a critical mass of users require the recommendation of specific tools.

SLIDES 6-11: whether or not one buys into the critiques of how neoliberal policy is opening-up higher education, it is clear that HE is seen as a marketised space into which services can be sold. Lipman defined this as a $2.5 trillion market in education that is restructuring the reality of education and training. This has ramifications for those who work in institutions that are, at least in-part, publically/charitably-funded, governed and regulated. How value is defined in that restructured space, beyond the rule of money, needs to be assessed, including which services will be outsourced to the cloud and why. This is more important because, as Macquarie Capital Equities Research House argues, the market for cloud-based solutions is growing and becoming more aggressively competitive. Witness Google’s Knowledge Graph and the application of big data/semantic web to web-based service development. The rate of profit is critical here in how it affects the restructuring of businesses that operate “the cloud” and which will be looking for new markets, and for those universities which are being recalibrated through HE policy as businesses and which need to extract value from their operations. UK Government policy, the pronouncements of UK Vice-Chancellors like Malcolm Gilles, and reports from think-tanks like Educause create a cultural space inside civic society that helps to reframe educational policy around deterministic uses of technology.

SLIDE 12: Stakeholders inside universities might reflect on how technology is deployed inside hegemonic, fiscal “realities”. These include the following.

  • The drive for public-private partnerships, or private finance initiatives that drive efficiencies, value-for-money etc.. This underpins ideas of service re-engineering, outsourcing of services to lower-wage/cost spaces, and consultancy for new services. This is about disciplining labour and extracting surplus value from outsourced services.
  • The generation of discourses of efficiency/productivity that are rooted though analytics, big data, the reduced circulation time of information-based commodities, changes in production through outsourcing, and workload/workforce monitoring.
  • The legitimation of further innovation and R&D, through discourses of value-for-money, commercial efficiency, business process re-engineering (c.f. European Vision 2020; HEFCE 2012).
  • The need to maintain technological innovation, in order to stay one step ahead of competitors. This connects to Marx’s idea of the moral depreciation of technologies/machines, and the need for constant innovation/value-creation.

Each of these pressures act on universities, and catalyse the need to consider cloud-based migration.

SLIDES 14-17: the second big risk is to users and institutions of placing data in the Cloud, especially where that data is stored on services hosted by a corporation based in the USA, or where hardware is physically located in the USA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology have both raised concerns over the Justice Department’s use of courts in the USA to subpoena access to data that has left a user’s device and is stored in “the cloud”.

SLIDE 18: universities might wish to consider the following cases, which affect the storage of corporate assets (research data, personal information, communications, assessments and evaluations etc.) in the cloud.

  • Twitter: the EFF/American Civil Liberties Union reported on the U.S. Department of Justice’s subpoena to Twitter for Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir’s tweets regarding Wikileaks. The Salon reported:

The information demanded by the DOJ is sweeping in scope. It includes all mailing addresses and billing information known for the user, all connection records and session times, all IP addresses used to access Twitter, all known email accounts, as well as the “means and source of payment,” including banking records and credit cards. It seeks all of that information for the period beginning November 1, 2009, through the present.

  • LinkedIn: opens-up attempts to crack a service, and to enable hackers to aggregate data for future cracking of other services, for instance by confirming guesses about passwords. This enables the comparison of hacked data against pre-computed versions and broadens “guessable” data. How does this affect the recommended technologies that staff/students use? In June 2012, ComputerWorld noted:

More than 60% of the unique hashed passwords that were accessed by hackers from a LinkedIn password database and posted online this week have already been cracked, according to security firm Sophos.

  • Facebook, Google and Twitter: there is now an obligation to identify “trolls”, and internet companies will have to surrender the details of those posting libellous messages. How does this affect staff and student professional development/identities?
  • Leveson: Jeremy Hunt’s private Gmail account, which was used to conduct official business was subject to Freedom of Information, according to the Information Commissioner.

This raises issues of: cloud-based service availability and resilience; confidentiality/privacy and personal/institutional data; copyright/copyleft/content distribution; data security/back-ups control/deletion.

SLIDES 19 and 20 demonstrate how important it is to protect critical assets or data from providers and to think about service resilience, even when dealing with a behemoth like Amazon Web Services which has suffered outages.

SLIDE 21: demonstrates just how ubiquitous cloud services are, and how deeply interconnected they are to broader geographies of transnational finance capital and corporate governance. Thinking through what transnational corporate governance means for your institutional data/services/technologies is critical.

SLIDES 22-23: some final governance issues for institutions and their staff.

  • Risk-management operates at a range of scales: does it matter if someone accesses your stuff? [c.f. Dropbox; subject to FoI] If so, canyou build Chinese walls or local alternatives?
  • What about corporate governance, including access to services that are marketised? [e.g. the recent Google-Verizon issue, which flagged the possibility of a two-speed internet, especially for multimedia distribution/consumption. See also the potential costs of accessing data in a marketised HE space.]
  • Does it matter if the academic who is responsible for the curriculum/assessment that is managed in the Cloud, in non-institutional services gets hit by a bus? [What should be managed in-house or hosted via a contract?]
  • Do we understand that data is being transferred into a service and that we have responsibilities? [T&Cs; Intellectual Property; protected characteristics; indemnities for libel].
  • How do we work-up the digital literacies of our staff/students in these spaces?

Do Universities Care Enough About Students?

I am speaking on a panel at the London Festival of Education on Saturday 17 November, 2012. The panel is covering the question Do Universities Care Enough About Students? I take care to mean a positive perception of assistance that enables the person who is cared about to cope with emotional issues and to perform mental or cognitive activities.

My argument will cover the four points that follow and which have all been made elsewhere on this blog over time.

FIRST. On spaces for caring about students.

The British Child Psychologist Donald Winnicott argued that care was predicated on the value to the individual of an enabling environment where s/he can be held whilst making sense of the world. This act of holding is based on trust and engagement within a secure space that is engaging and not so fragmented as to overwhelm the individual. Both the environment and the relationships have to be good-enough to enable the individual to make sense of themselves and what they feel and want to achieve.

There are connections here to Vygotsky’s social constructivism, and it is important to note Vygotsky’s Marxism. This was captured by Mike Neary as “A key issue for Student as Producer” where it highlights that “social learning is more than the individual learning in a social context, and includes the way in which the social context itself is transformed through progressive pedagogic practice.” Vygotsky argued for a understanding of a progressive environment that might be described as caring in that it enables the individual to make sense of her/his world and act in it.

The environment is the source of development of these specifically human traits and attributes, most importantly because these historically evolved traits of human personality, which are latent in every human being due to the organic makeup of heredity, exist in the environment, but the only way they can be found in each individual human being is on the strength of his being a member of a certain social group, and that he represents a certain historical unit living at a certain historical period and in certain historical circumstances. Consequently, these specifically human characteristics and attributes manifest themselves in slightly different ways in child development than do other traits and attributes which are more or less directly conditioned by the course of prior historical human development. These ideal forms which have been refined and perfected by humanity and which should appear at the end of the development process, prevail in the environment. These ideal forms influence children from their very early beginnings as part of the process of mastering of the rudimentary form. And during the course of their development children acquire, as their personal property, that which originally represented only a form of their external interaction with the environment.

The interplay between cultures and norms, practices, environments or contexts, scarce or abundant resources, relationships and technologies, unfolds as issues of power, identity, coercion and consent inside the University, as the student attempts to emerge more fully into the world. It is in this emergence that the idea of care is negotiated and situated.

SECOND. On the relationship between the University and students, and the idea of the student-as-entrepreneur.

Higher education is part of a regime of capitalist power that directs the consumption and production of our lives, both as we labour and as we relax. As Ellen Meiksins-Wood argued in 1997: “we’re living in a moment when, for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system…. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic – the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximisation, competition – has penetrated almost every aspect of human life and nature itself”. Debt and forms of indentured education that can be driven by information and data flows, and accelerated through the transfer of risk to the individual, are central to this logic. Even where it is shown that educational subsidies like EMA are efficient in recouping their costs they are scrapped because they are beyond the logic of debt. For, as Michael Gove argues debt is now a way of life, and a way of marketising humanity: “Anyone put off… university by fear of… debt doesn’t deserve to be at university in the first place”.

This is amplified in David Willetts’ speech to the spring 2011 conference of Universities UK, in which he made plain a view of: privatisation; cost reduction; consumption as pedagogy; closing-off teaching in “undesirable” subjects; and anti-humanism.

Let me start this morning with our broader vision for HE – it is a simpler, more flexible system which gives students better value and greater choice. That means a more diverse range of providers should be able to play a role. It means funding for teaching should follow the choices that students make. And it means empowering students to make their own choices based on better, more transparent information.

It is from within this space that debt becomes a pedagogic tool, focused upon the consumption of knowledge and lifestyles, of uncriticality, of employability and skills, of business and not economics, of STEM and not humanities. It is about recalibrating the University as a site where, rather than coming to understand the objective conditions that exist inside capitalism, students pay to develop the individuated skills of the entrepreneur. The risk in the separation and individuation of students-as-entrepreneurs is that the responsibility for failure is handed to the individual rather than being collectively/socially negotiated and owned. Thus, future roles/status or the very idea of a meaningful future is indentured and disciplined through the prevalence and amount of debt. Debt becomes a pedagogic tool, and recalibrates the structures, meanings and relationships of the University, as against the humanistic lesson that the university traditionally proclaimed. This is hardly resilient.

We are being taught a lesson that as the state transfers the social value of a university life to the individual via debt, higher education is no longer immune from the logic of the market, and is no longer able simple to call upon the mantra of the public good. Thus we enter a world where graduates face paying back double their student loans as debt charges rack up, and where Universities are disciplined by funding shortages into providing what their students as customers, disciplined by debt in a specific market, demand of them. There is no space for common deliberation about the purpose of an education in a world that faces massive socio-environmental disruption. There is only space for discussion of employment and debt repayment, pivoting around the entrepreneurial self. The logic of capitalist accumulation through debt, and the treadmill necessity of finding spaces for the re-capitalisation/investment of surplus value shackles higher education to the hegemony of consumption for capitalist growth.

THIRD. The legitimacy of caring about students.

As Paul Mason noted in 2011, about why it is kicking off everywhere, “At the heart of it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future”. In Athens, Oakland, Santiago, Quebec, University College London, Dhaka, Taveta and Wundanyi in Kenya, UC Berkeley, and in countless other places and spaces, students have led the protests against the legitimacy of austerity, and the limitations of a commodified educational experience. They have recalibrated their environments to cope with emotional issues and to perform cognitive tasks.

In this process of protest, students have used a range of deliberative techniques to uncover what is legitimate, and to reveal what they are collectively willing to bear in the name of freedom. To care about themselves and each other appears important. What they are willing to bear has to be negotiated communally, through a process that re-legitimises the politics of both the form and the content of the University. This demands trust and consent rather than coercion, a discussion that is more vital to the idea of the University in a world that faces not just economic austerity but socio-environmental crisis. For it may be that we risk enduring a semi-permanent state of exception if we do not find the courage to deliberate the reality of our world. EP Thompson recognised this courage emanating from a radicalised student collective, and saw in it a glimpse of redemption beyond economic growth:

We have been luckier than any of us had the right to deserve in the quality of our students. They took the initiative. They asked the right questions. They began to understand the answers. They stood firm against rhetoric, against threats, against the special pleading of those with large interests to lose. They have – by now in scores – put their academic careers at risk. It is they who have reasserted the idea of a university. They may well need help.

In response to the spread of the state of exception into the space of the University, student occupations have reminded us of the courage that we share in debating what is legitimate, who is marginalised, and why power is wielded. Students have asked who is to be cared about? They have also reminded us that the University is reproduced inside a broader, global set of relationships and political contexts, and this set both enables/disables the use of labels and interpretations about people and practices. This labelling comes in the wake of power, and affects who is scrutinised and which technologies are used to coerce and prevent, and for whom do we impose exceptional circumstances. Through critique we might work to push back against the University’s role in this reproduction of states of exception, and to re-politicise the forms of our University life, against meaningless, enclosed and universal narratives of justice and democracy. To take care of ourselves in society.

FOURTH. A care full University life.

The University develops meaning as it enables working and living in public. The work of the University must be public, knowable and fair, and it must be care full or full of care. How we demonstrate our care is a crucial question. As we answer it, we might consider how we enable our students’ dreams to outlive our fears, and how we collectively develop the courage to keep trying. We might usefully consider the realpolitik of University life. Inside capital and in the face of the rule of law and the market, what is the role of the University? How does the University help us to understand what we are willing to bear in the name of freedom?

We might try, therefore, to understand how the University can help us to be against force and enclosure, in order to become a space for deliberating rather than judging, and for developing an avowedly political response to the collective punishment meted out as austerity and marketisation. In taking this view, we demonstrate that the University cares very publically about a world that is socially-defined for collective ends rather than privatised of value extraction. This is important in overcoming what Christopher Newfield calls “subsidy capitalism”, which “means that the public, directly or indirectly, does not participate in the investment, research, and development decisions that remake society year in and year out. It hands over resources and all decision rights at the same time.” Newfield goes on:

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

In defining a collective future that is against the poverty of the thinking behind the student-as-entrepreneur, we might develop an idea of the kinds of enabling environments where s/he can be held whilst making sense of a world that faces significant socio-environmental and political disruption. As a result we might focus on three different sets of questions that attempt to enable the person who is cared about inside the University to cope with emotional issues and to perform mental or cognitive activities.

  1. What sorts of relationships between people are we encouraging? What are our negotiated roles/responsibilities in the curriculum and beyond?
  2. What sorts of knowledge/understanding do our students need to be effective agents in a society that faces stresses of climate change, peak oil and liquid energy availability, and austerity?
  3. Can the University work equally well for a mixed demographic, with some networked and mobile learners, operating in information-rich environments and preparing for highly-polarised workplaces? If not how do we respond? Is a resilient education part of this mix?