Notes from a place of resistance

These notes were written whilst listening to Rave Tapes by Mogwai and this alt-J performance on npr.

I attended a seminar in Brighton on Thursday called Resisting Neoliberal Education: Alternative Systems, Discourse and Practice. My notes and thoughts from the event follow.

ONE. In the round-table introductions I realised that of the 15 attendees, I only knew three people. That means there are 11 other stories of resistance in the room. That’s a lot of new potential energy and possibility for #solidarity and association, and also hope.

TWO. In the roundtable Stephen O’Brien from Cork spoke about how he had written a triptych on learning outcomes, and made a point about how certain language and meaning and ways of working in the world get written into culture so that resistance becomes difficult. Contesting the hegemonic power of learning outcomes in educational practice and theory situates us asymmetrically against Pearson Education and their absolute obsession with learning outcomes as an educational business model. It situates us against the idea that aligning high stakes testing and educational improvement is a form of economic patriotism. It situates us against the commodification of educational relationships through data-mining and learning analytics. It situates us with Walter Stroup and his “rebellion” against standardisation. In this I am reminded that the detail is really important, and that life histories of specific technologies (follow the technology), fiscal innovations (follow the money), and pedagogical innovations (follow the technique), enable us to see who has voice and power. Pace Marx (footnote 4, Chapter 15, Volume 1 of Capital), we might note:

[a specific innovation] reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.

Critical in understanding and critiquing capitalist social relations and alternatives to it, is a focus on how learning appears to us, and how it appears to those with power [or their power-over our power-to-do].

TWO. In the roundtable, someone, and it’s remiss of me to forget who, spoke of the “unattractive nature of academic life” in its current anxiety-hardened, precarious form. I think that collectively we were questioning the representation and formation of the University and the consequences for learning and teaching (as opposed to the student experience).

THREE. Several people spoke about the idea of the public good. Rarely did we mention co-operativism or the Commons. I think that in re-imagining the University inside a new form of sociability, this is a rich space of potential and possibility. Joss Winn’s blog-post on re-imagining pulls a lot of this together, including Mike Neary’s work on student-as-producer and the genesis of the Social Science Centre. There is also work to be done for us in thinking through and living the possibilities for transitional alternatives. I think that it is important to see alternative forms as transitional and pedagogic, and not to be fetishized. I reconsidered this in the face of Nadia Edmond’s (firm-but-fair) challenge to me about whether spaces like the Social Science Centre were alternatives that were sustainable or whether they are (my words) simply academic philanthropy. I also reconsidered this in light of remembering that the Really Open University had deliberately used the phrase “re-imagining the University.” The critical thing for me about the Social Science Centre is that it forms a laboratory for co-operative production, consumption and distribution that is about democratic organising principles (governance) for both the Centre and its activities, and its content (e.g. childcare arrangements, curricula, events). Whilst the current Know-How course might be represented inside some universities and through some courses, there are some “scholars” who do not wish to/cannot undertake such a course inside. Equally, the content and curriculum is co-negotiated and produced in a way that is different from the bulk of curricula inside. Finally, the production, consumption and distribution of the curriculum circulates inside-and-through the organisation of the Social Science Centre and informs its governance.

FOUR. A sense of work inside/outside the University was seen as pivotal in resisting or defining something different. This reminded me of Elise Thorburn’s brilliant article on autonomy and the Edufactory, in which she writes about the power-to-do that is situated in three strands: first, inside general assemblies as democratic governance and organisation; second, through militant research done in partnership; finally, through work done in public. I think this is the key to much of our re-imagining; that it is done in public as a democratic act of militant research. Someone at the seminar spoke of activist knowledge that “rows in behind”, as an act of solidarity and love. Through such acts, as a kind of solidarity economy, we might enable the amplification of alternatives as an asymmetrical definition of possible forms of sociability beyond the market. Here we might engage with the idea that no alternative is beyond the structural domination of capitalist social relations, but that we might take them to be transitional through a pedagogic appreciation of what it is to be in/against/beyond. But this takes courage and faith. Not to fetishise the institution, which is itself alienating, but to look for points of solidarity.

FIVE. Over lunch Steve O’Brien used the word monastic to describe much of his recent academic work. I love that term. I feel that in the aftermath of the moments of rage and impotence in the academic (staff and student) protests of 2010-11, for personal and academic reasons I became monastic, returning to theory and harvesting historical and material and global stories of resistance and alternatives and mending myself. There is something here about asking whether it is possible to rebuild oneself in the face of systemic alienation, as a brutal form of therapy, in order to embody one’s position. In order to return to a room where people can meet to listen and speak and voice effective demands.

SIX. Throughout I was reminded of fellowship and the links between fellowship, liberation and de/legitimation. This made me reconsider why I keep returning to this quote about liberation, the individual, the community and association, from Marx in The German Ideology:

The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relationships) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community, in which individuals have up till now combined, always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and was at the same time, since it was the combination of one class over against another, not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.

This is about collective and invisible work in the name of counter-narratives and not fixed alternatives.

SEVEN. Ciaran Sugrue spoke about the defence mechanisms that individuals have as “multiple scripts” that are played out differentially depending on context. Steve O’Brien reminded me that F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” These two interventions made me reconsider our defences against a world that is increasingly abstract and polarised around inequality and agony. This is especially so where Her Majesty’s Opposition in the UK, the Labour Party, accept an hour-glass economy and the fact that some people will be losers in a globalised economy. Here we might again ask what does it mean to be inside/outside and how are our multiple scripts or defences, acts of self-harm or self-care? The work of Frantz Fanon on cognitive dissonance is important for me here, especially in Black Skin, White Masks.

EIGHT. Throughout I had the work of Anselm Jappe on my mind, and the asymmetry between humane values and the production and accumulation of value. In spite of my knowing that sociability, solidarity, fidelity, courage, hope, whatever, are produced and reproduced inside-and-against private property and value, I am reminded that Jappe wrote:

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

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

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

NINE. It feels important to me to have access to what someone called “resources for resistance”, to situate my work fixed in space-time, against those of others. I hope we can create such a collective thing. Someone else spoke of sharing stories and building life histories as a means of “keeping each other’s fire burning.” These are forms of Luddism. Forms of hacking. Forms of re-imagining.

TEN. I was reminded of Allyson Pollack’s work on an NHS Reinstatement Bill, as an act of courage, public justice and hope. I wondered about the possibility less for a manifesto, and more for a free, public Higher Education Re-instatement Bill.

ELEVEN. I read of Chris Hedges’ work on capitalism’s sacrifice zones, and the idea that “There are forgotten corners of this country where Americans are trapped in endless cycles of poverty, powerlessness, and despair as a direct result of capitalistic greed.” Moreover, these zones are deliberately sacrificed in the pursuit of profit: “These are areas that have been destroyed for quarterly profit. We’re talking about environmentally destroyed, communities destroyed, human beings destroyed, families destroyed”. This reminded me that as Ellen Meiksins-Wood argued:

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.

In this she saw hope because:

the universalization of capitalism not just as a measure of success but as a source of weakness… It can only universalize its contradictions, its polarizations between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited. Its successes are also its failures… Now capitalism has no more escape routes, no more safety valves or corrective mechanisms outside its own internal logic… the more it maximizes profit and so-called growth – the more it devours its own human and natural substance.

This forced me to re-think:

  • Are there other ways of producing knowing? What authority does HE/do universities have?
  • In a knowing world, rather than a knowledge economy, what does the curriculum mean?
  • Does a pedagogy of production need to start with the principle that we need to consume less of everything? What does this mean for ownership of the institution at scale [local, regional, global]?
  • How can student voices help in the struggle to re-invent the world?
  • What is to be done?

TWELVE. I don’t think I used the word neoliberalism once. I realised that I have dropped it from my vocabulary as inappropriate. For me the issue is Capital and Labour, and neoliberalism was just a global, political economic, phase we were going through. This is about hegemony and counter-narratives. Here the work of William Robinson on global capitalism is important to me. Equally important is finding ways in which we can take the energy of the dominant discourse and (akin to a form of t’ai chi) displace it or use it against itself, by revealing stories of inhumanity and inequality and courage. Through an appeal to what it is to be a concrete human rather than an abstraction.


Presentations on academic alienation, academic labour and academic activism

I have a number of presentations coming up that focus upon academic alienation, academic labour and academic activism. The connection between alienation and work, revealed in normative responses to the triple crunch of climate change, peak oil and austerity, leads me to question the ways in which academics enable the hegemonic reproduction of the University for value. I’ll be speaking about academic work/activism and the triple crunch here. However, the following abstract has been accepted for the Academic Identities conference 2014. I will be co-presenting with Joss Winn(from the University of Lincoln and the Social Science Centre).

A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of Academic Labour.

In this paper we analyse ‘academic labour’ using categories developed by Marx in his critique of political economy. In doing so, we return to Marx’s mature writing to help understand the work of academics as productive living labour subsumed by the capitalist mode of production. In elaborating our own position, we are critical of two common approaches to the study of academic labour, especially as they emerge from inside analyses of virtual labour or digital work.

First, we are critical of efforts to define the nature of our work as ‘immaterial labour’ and argue that this category is an unhelpful and unnecessary diversion from the analytical power of Marx’s social theory and method. The discourse around ‘immaterial labour’ raised by the Autonomist or Operaismo tradition is thought-provoking, but ultimately adds little to a critical theory of commodity production as the basis of capitalist social relations. In fact they tend to overstate network-centrism and its concomitant disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape our objective social reality.

Second, we are cautious of an approach which focuses on the digital content of academic labour to the neglect of both its form and the organising principles under which it is subsumed. Understandably, academics have a tendency to reify their own labour such that it becomes something that they struggle for, rather than against. However, repeatedly adopting this approach can only lead to a sense of helplessness. If, rather, we focus our critique on the form and organising principles of labour, we find that it shares the same general qualities whether it is academic or not. Thus, it is revealed as commodity-producing, with both concrete and abstract forms. By remaining focused on the form of labour, rather than its content, we can only critique it rather than reify it.

This then has implications for our understanding of the relationships between academics and virtual work, the ways in which technologies are used to organise academic labour digitally, and struggles to overcome such labour. It is our approach to conceive of ‘academic labour’ in both its concrete and abstract forms and in relation to a range of techniques and technologies. The purpose of this is to unite all workers in solidarity against labour, rather than against each other in a competitive labour market.


On circuits of affect and resistance

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

ONE. Circuits of affect and resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE. Some criticisms of immateriality or affective capital

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOUR. Some references on Autonomia or affect or immateriality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On Autonomist Marxism and the affective economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


On the co-operative University as a field of opportunity

Yesterday @chunkymark interviewed @aaronjohnpeters. Peters made the important point at 12.31 in the video that the lead-into and beyond the next General Election in 2015 offers a relatively unique “field of opportunity” for recasting a politics of opposition and alternative to those of austerity. The question Peters then poses is: “how do we respond to that [field of opportunity]?” He goes on to state that we need to find “sustainable forms of opposition”, which lie inside-against-and-beyond traditional party and union structures and that refuse to outsource renewal and change to those in power. If we are to delegitimise those who have delineated a politics of neoliberal accumulation by dispossession, then we need alliances and allegiances of “constructive engagement” that enable us collectively to define our power-to create the world. At least this is my interpretation.

Peters reinforces this with the cry of “They all must go!” (¡Que se vayan todos!) that emerged from the social struggles againstArgentina’s debt crisis a decade ago, including protest, outing represssion, delegitimising of those in-power and relegitimising other forms of working and co-operating, the recovered factories movement, neighbourhood assemblies, and so on. Naomi Klein sought to stich a sense of global solidarity into that movement by making explicit connections for instance to the Icelandic protests against transnational elites of politicians and CEOs in 2002. She argues that “governments that respond to a crisis created by free-market ideology with an acceleration of that same discredited agenda will not survive to tell the tale.”

The social struggles against the restructuring of Argentina have been mapped in an edition of affinities from 2010 on The New Cooperativism. It is clear that Central and South America provide a rich-veing of possible stories of solidarity, democracy, and autonomy, which are themselves predicated upon different organising principles of production. As Lebowitz notes for Venezuela this is then predicated upon the interests of a whole society and not those in-power, and it demands that we find ways to critique private property, the exploitation of labour, and production solely for profit, in order to redefine units of social property, forms of social production organised by workers, and production for the needs of communities. Lebowitz argues for co-management between workers in enterprises or firms, and society/communities.

Co-management implies a particular kind of partnership–a partnership between the workers of an enterprise and society. Thus, it stresses that enterprises do not belong to the workers alone–they are meant to be operated in the interest of the whole society. In other words, co-management is not intended only to remove the self-interested capitalist, leaving in place self-interested workers; rather, it is also meant to change the purpose of productive activity. It means the effort to find ways both to allow for the development of the full potential of workers and also for every member of society, all working people, to be the beneficiaries of co-management.

We might also take something here from the experiences of Cuba, in raising healthcare (witnessed in Haiti and Venezuela) and educational attainment, at lower levels of GDP and environmental impact. As George Lambie (p. 35) notes in his deconstruction of the Cuban Revolution in the Twenty-First Century ‘The problem is that territorially restricted capital is less able to compete with its transnationally mobile counterpart.’ Thus, in the face of the neoliberal refrain of social mobility communities need new ways to exit the drive to compete with transnationally mobile capital, and to define new methods of working and producing life. This includes the role of the University in supporting those communities and societies in widening their own field of opportunity and inscribing sustainable forms of opposition and alternative.

Lambie (p. 47) argues that this is crucial because purchasing power parities now show global inequality to be significantly greater than the most pessimistic had thought. Poverty in tied to a lack of mobility and opportunity, limited access to social services, deteriorating working conditions, insecure employment etc., and a disconnect with politics that is framed corporately and where power is located in supra-national classes of actors. For De Peuter and Dyer-Witheford this means that we might refocus the core institutions of everyday life around “an organizational commons, [where] the labour performed is a commoning practice, and the surplus generated, a commonwealth.” They argue for “an acknowledgement of the contribution to collective productivity of every life” and forms of “self-organised associated labour” that can enable a circulation of the commons and the value of commoning.

At issue is the governance of the University as a form of self-organising associated labour, which is able to create sustainable forms of opposition and alternative, in the face of the politics of austerity and dispossession, and more long-term, in the face of the crisis of accumulation. Is it possible for the University to be a public good that helps to legitimise and reterritorialise local forms of social production? On what basis might the University as co-operative endeavour help to liberate communities from the corporate power-over them?


Some notes on the associational and democratic organising principles of a co-operative University

ONE: outing capitalism

We need to talk about capitalism. We need to talk about this because of the systemic failure of capitalist counter-measures to enable the process of accumulation to be stabilised, and of growth to be renewed. The failure of these counter-measures, including the incorporation of new markets, the extraction of new forms of liquid energy, the printing of money, the redistribution of capital from production to services and financialiation, and the attack on labour rights/wages, is seen in the purely economic discourse that wraps around both everyday life and public policy.

What this ongoing failure tends to highlight is the opportunity to develop lasting critiques of the mechanics of capitalism, its social relations and organising principles. Across the range of ruptures that currently infect capitalism, from the failure to lever growth across the global North in spite of counter-measures to the ongoing social protests in Brazil, Chile, China, Egypt and elsewhere, we have a moment when the structuring realities of capitalism as an historically-situated system of domination can be revealed. For Postone (p. 70), this is central to a critique of our unfreedom. Thus,

history, grasped as the unfolding of an immanent necessity, should be understood as delineating a form of unfreedom. That form of unfreedom is the object of Marx’s critical theory of capitalism, which is centrally concerned with the imperatives and constraints that underlie the historical dynamics and structural changes of the modern world. That is, rather than deny the existence of such unfreedom by focusing on contingency, the Marxian critique seeks to uncover its basis and the possibility of its overcoming.’

What becomes more critical is our ability to demonstrate both the historical and the socially-constructed nature of the objective relations of capitalism. Understanding “the systemic constraints imposed by capital’s global dynamic on democratic self-determination” (Postone, p. 79) is then the object that underpins the deliberation of alternatives. However, these alternatives also need to be debated in the face if the lived realities of their emergence inside capitalism, so that it becomes possible to recognise how

human social production has been accomplished through ongoing historical injustice. The Industrial Revolution’s massive amplification of material wealth was founded on the exploitation of both individual and social labors, and also on the increasing ownership and concentration of the tools and other means of production in the hands of capital. Historically, human sociality in production has been brought about when the worker’s labor is expropriated by the conventions of private property and accumulated stock; that is, it has come about in an alienated form. The benefit of human sociality for the productive process as a whole has been founded on an alienated distribution wherein labor is not returned its due. (Wendling, p. 33)

Is it possible for the social relations that are reproduced transnationally for the valorisation of value and for the seizure of surplus value by an elite class, and which reduce labour through processes of arbitrage to a factor of production, to be resisted? Is it possible for resistance to liberate human subjectivity?

In determining answers to these questions, it is important to out the threats to the existence of capitalism: first, from a revelation of the mechanisms through which its internal contradictions and crises arise, based in-part on politicising issues of environmental catastrophe and social justice; second, from a revelation of the systemic failure to reassert stable accumulation on a global basis, based in-part on politicising issues of intergenerational justice and disenfranchisement; and third, from a revelation of the socio-historical nature of solidarity that emerges from global, social protest and resistance. As Cleaver writes about this secular crisis of capitalism, it is crucial that we crystallise the multitude of “antagonistic forces and trends which are inherent in its social structure and which persist through short term fluctuations and major restructurings”, so that we are able to delineate “the study of the struggles for liberation from the constraints of capitalism as a social system.”

This is how I begin to respond to Joss Winn’s recent argument for the post-capitalist University that is inside-and-against the existing University, which exists as means for the valorisation of capital. He argues that:

agency should not be measured by the extent that we are able to resist or abolish the system of domination, but instead a dialectical approach would recognise that a post-capitalist university would be developed out of the conditions of possibility which the existing university has produced. In other words, an ‘anti-capitalist’ approach misses both the point of resistance and the target. What is required is the overcoming of the capitalist modes of valorisation.

Disruption of the University or higher education as a mechanism for reproducing the structuring inequalities of capitalism might include developing histories and practices rooted in the commons or community/gift-based economies, which are predicated on alternative forms of distribution and production. However, a more useful place to start is the organising principles of the University inside capitalism, and their relationship to competition and co-operation.

TWO: competition or co-operation?

As the work of Simon Clarke highlights, the realities of competition and co-operation need to be seen in light of the concept of value, which is characteristic of a society in which social relations emerge between independent producers regulated through market-mechanisms. For Marx, this has an economic, quantitative form that emerges from the processes of accumulation, and also a social, qualitative form that underpins class struggle. In-part this struggle takes the form of the ownership of labour and the mechanisms through which labour-power is reduced to a wage. However, it also enables a discussion of the specific character of labour that creates value; of capitalist work as specifically human labour.

Thus, revealing Capital as value-in-motion, as a system able to expand itself through the treadmill dynamics of competition, or as `self-valorising value’, enables a richer analysis of the mechanisms through which this expansion takes place. These mechanisms include competition and co-operation, and they apply as much to the University as any other competing Capital. In Chapter 13 of Volume I of Capital, Marx treats co-operation as the logical foundation and the historical starting point of capitalist production: the point of departure for manufacturing through the real subsumption of labour. Revealing the forms of co-operation inside the factory, demonstrates how capitalists used co-operative practices to even out the differences between individual workers and to give labour a “socially average character” (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, pp. 440-41). Moreover, co-operation in the manufacturing process is focused around capital intensity, delivering economies of scale, and reducing the costs of production, as well as driving efficiencies through changes to the labour process.

Co-operation rooted in capitalist production processes is thus predicated on competitive advantage, and this makes the subjection of labour to capital a “real condition of production” (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 448). Moreover, the productive power of collective labour appears to be a “productive power inherent in capital” (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 451). Thus, co-operation is the fundamental form of the capitalist mode of production and within the factory this enables: new forms of the division of labour; the deskilling of labour; the domination of man by the machine and time; and, the separation of mental from manual labour (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, pp. 542-53). Thus co-operation, and especially machinic co-operation, forms a weapon in the struggle of capital against labour.

We might then ask whether it is possible to utilise forms of social co-operation to overcome the alienation inherent in capitalism and to liberate human subjectivity? Do the realities of labour as a function of the valorisation process mean that it is not possible to imagine alternatives, however co-operative in nature they may be? Can co-operation help overcome the realities of accumulation by dispossession, which separate “the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realisation of their labour” (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 874)?

A starting point, as Marx highlights in Volume I of Capital, is to reveal the structures inside which co-operation forms:

The capitalist process of production… seen as a total, connected process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capital-relation itself; on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer. (p. 724)

One proposed mechanism for opposition is to reintroduce the idea of co-operation, perhaps as opposed to fetishising the structure/reality of co-operatives. Such a reintroduction would create politicised spaces for associational democracy. These might be worker- or producer-co-operatives, through which democracy is produced and reproduced as an organising principle. Moreover, their associational nature might enable solidarity between spaces that are formed co-operatively and democratically.

We might then ask how might co-operation reinforce or rupture the incessant reproduction and perpetuation of separation inside the system? Is it possible to reveal spaces or to liberate time that stand against expropriation, inequality, uncertainty, injustice and poverty? Can these spaces, times, or space-times be co-operative? If they might be co-operative then what do they imply for our understanding of labour or capitalist work, and for the organising principles of a society that is predicted on value (or self-valorising value)?

THREE: the co-operative university and associational democracy?

Recasting the idea of the co-operative university demands that we reveal the organising principles of the neoliberal university, which politicises the space-time of higher education as means for accumulation. This demands that we investigate the historical and material nature of the University and the extent to which co-operative practices or knowledges or space-times can be inscribed inside it or liberated from it. This is important for Joss Winn who writes:

Taking this view, the trajectory of higher education and its conceived role and purpose in public life over the last century can only be fully understood through a critique of capitalism as the historical mode of production which (re-)produces the university. This critical, intellectual effort must be combined with practical efforts to take control of the means of knowledge production so as to assume a democratic, co-operative form.

In some recent notes on the University, the state and democratic protest, I reflected on this in terms of liberation and association.

At issue is where we create/liberate spaces in which debates can take root. In an interesting set of tweets this month Jehu has argued the following:

“If you want to fight capital, your cannot fight it on its own terms; you must force it to fight on terrain it does not control.

“The capitalists control money; they control production; and they control the state — why would you choose to fight there?

“What the capitalists do not control is your free time. They have no way to convert this free time into capitalist profits.”

Jehu then reiterates Marx and Engels’ points around the need for association that:

“In labor theory the interest of a class, ‘achieves an independent existence over against the individuals’.

“Since the proletariat has no class interest, it can put an end to all classes.

“This argument is absolutely critical to Engels’ and Marx’s argument. because it means they have no choice but to enter into a voluntary …

… association to control their conditions of life together.”

You can read Jehu’s longer position on the difference between association and the State. However, he makes the important points that:

“The critical concept [is]the relation of the state to the class whose interest the state represents in an ideal form… The ideal expression of the interest of the bourgeois class, its general representative, is the bourgeois state… the proletariat have no choice but to enter into a voluntary association to control their conditions of life together. No state can give them this control, only their association… [the proletariat] is incapable of acting as a class and must act as individuals, these individuals must abolish class politics itself — they must overthrow the state.”

In a later post, Jehu quotes Zilbersheid reminder that “the abolition of labor [is] one of Marx’s most important ideas:

“At the core of the highest phase of communist society, as described in Marx’s early writings, is the abolition of labour. The more famous abolition of private property, the well-known abolition of the state, and the lesser-known abolition of the division of labour are all conditional upon the abolition of labour itself.

“At issue then are the mechanisms through which education is recalibrated to reduce free-time and to maintain the legitimacy and hegemony of the bourgeois state.”

Joss Winn develops this point when he writes that we need to out capitalism, and in particular “the domination of the logic of value, which mediates labour and therefore all social relations”. He notes that “it is not sufficient to control the specific means of production i.e. a ‘firm’. The problem must be tackled at all levels of society, locally, nationally and internationally, in order to overcome the overwhelming logic of this valorisation process located in both the production and the exchange of commodities”.

One way of beginning to address this problem might be to look again at the associational and democratic circuits not of the common but of the commune. When writing about the Paris Commune, Marx argued that the Commune stood in antithesis to the Napoleonic Empire, as the positive form of the Republic. Moreover, he argued that through education, the general intellect/science was freed from the fetters placed upon it by class and government, in order that the Commune could represent the idea of self-government for the producers. This form of self-government was anti-hierarchical and served:

as a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore class rule. With labour emancipated, every man becomes a working man, and productive labour ceases to be a class attribute (Marx, 2008, p. 50).

Moreover, this form of anti-economic, collective self-government was predicated upon co-operation and the abolition of labour or capitalist work through communism.

If co-operative production is not to remain a sham and a snare; if it is to supersede the capitalist system; if united co-operative societies are to regulate national production upon common plan, thus taking it under their own control, and putting an end to the constant anarchy and periodic convulsions which are the fatality of capitalist production – what else, gentlemen, would it be but communism, “possible” communism? (Marx, 2008, p. 50).

Inside the University as means for the production of value this requires what Gill (p. 19) has identified as resistance to “divisive, individualizing practices, [to] the silences around them, [to] the fact also that people are too exhausted to resist and furthermore do not know what to resist or how to do so.” These individualised practices are framed inside the creation of entrepreneurial, autonomous, self motivating, responsibilised subjects, and they underpin delegitimisation that is gendered, racialised and classed, and too-often based on competition.

Outing the dynamics of individuated competition and restating the possibilities of association, solidarity and alliance are key to the definition of a co-operative University that is inside-against-and-beyond the neoliberal, entrepreneurial University. As Cleaver notes:

Competition” has become a prominent slogan of domination in this period of international capitalist restructuring — one used to pit workers against workers. We need to defetishize its meaning by showing how it is merely a particular way of organizing the class struggle. Within the context of Marxist crisis theory we need to do the same and relocate competition within the class struggle rather than outside it… we should substitute the politics of alliance for the replacement of capitalism by a diversity of social projects. A politics of alliance against capital to be conducted not only to accelerate the circulation of struggle from sector to sector of the class, but to do so in such a manner as to build a post-capitalist politics of difference without antagonism.

Association, solidarity and alliance in the space-times that are revealed by the University resist the confinement of social reproduction within limits set by the value-form of labour. They resist the capitalisation of humanity, or our degrading reproduction as human capital (see Rikowski). Paraphrasing Marx, the purpose of the co-operative University based upon associational democracy is to create and liberate forms of space-time (Commons, co-operatives, clubs, social centres, communes, whatever) that enable human beings to distinguish between the techniques employed by capital for valorisation, and to direct their attacks, not against these material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used. Moreover, the associational and democratic organising principles of such a co-operative University need to be predicated on alliance and solidarity with other educational and non-educational forms of resistance. As Clarke argues (2002, p. 55) “The only force that could change the world was the self-organisation of the direct producers who would abolish the production of commodities based on capital and bring social production under conscious social control.”

Defining the associational and democratic organising principles of such a co-operative University forms the task of refusing and pushing-back against neoliberal enclosure of the reality of University life. This is not to recuperate an ideal of the University against the historical realities of capitalism. It is to recuperate the ideas of association, solidarity and alliance, in order to liberate spaces and times for social co-operation and co-operating. One outcome may be the mechanisms through which social production under democratic, social control, can reveal and crack the realities of valorisation.

FOUR: six sets of questions

1. What does this mean for the governance structures of universities? What does it mean for the hierarchical and alienating management and adminstration structures of universities?

2. What does this mean for the university as means for the production of value, as enclosed by: regulators like funding councils and quality agencies; financial regulatory networks, like credit ratings agencies; and transnational activist agencies like the World Bank and IMF?

3. What does this mean for the recalibration of universities against the discourses that are used to restructure them, like impact, entrepreneurship, and employability? What does this mean for academic labour?

4. What does this mean for the fetishisation of the student voice as opposed to participatory democratic engagement by students in the organisation of the University and the curriculum?

5. What does this mean for the organising principles of the curriculum, and the definition of a critical pedagogy that reveals the secular crisis and responses to it?

6. What does this mean for the idea of the University as a public good?


The University and the secular crisis

In retrospect Steve Smith’s article linked in a previous posting on the University and the rule of money is important in highlighting that the UK Government’s austerity agenda will tighten considerably in the aftermath of the next General Election in 2015. He is clear that the squeeze on incomes for universities will give little room for manoeuvre, and one outcome is that the sector as a whole risks further stratification and restructuring, as institutions operating as competing capitals look for securitisation or financialisation coupled to attacks on labour rights and efficiency drives.

It is salutary to remember that the idea of the University and issues of funding are situated within the politics of austerity and the fiscal realities of an ideological attack on the sector. It should be noted that this is a deeply political attack that has seen resistance from groups of students and public sector workers and trades unions, but limited critique from the sector’s leaders. It is only Million+ that has developed an on-going critique based on the Government’s economic projections. Thus, in March 2013, the CEO of Million+ wrote:

Once the loss to the Treasury of reduced participation (which in turn leads to reduced tax receipts) and the inflationary impact of higher tuition fees are taken into account, the short-term savings will be outweighed almost six and a half times by the long-term costs of the new system.

In developing a meaningful critique, it is important to place the context of University funding, and the concomitant restructuring of the idea of the University for entrepreneurship and employability, in the context of the UK as a de-developing economy. Speaking at the LSE in September 2012, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson stated their thesis that that the historical trend for the UK economy in the last century has been managed decline arrested by quick fixes like access to North Sea oil revenues and the stimulus of the deregulated City. Elliott and Atkinson argue that the UK is in a long decline, signalled now by an economy that is 4% smaller than it was when the financial crisis hit, and which is emerging from recession slower than it had during the Great Depression. They note that: the cost of the economic downturn is in excess of £200bn; real incomes are down, with the IFS stating that it will be 2016/17 before incomes reach 2004 levels and with an increase in levels of poverty; banking is “big, bust and corrupt”; successive rounds of Quantitative Easing and purchasing of gilts has underpinned much higher real inflation than that reported in the CPI, with no respite for savers; and the Treasury has had to borrow in excess of 550bn thereby doubling the debt.

For Elliott and Atkinson, the macro-economic context, inside which higher education is framed, is one of blunder, fudge and self-delusion. Revenues from the UK economy’s strong suits in some services and consultancy areas, aerospace and IT, as well as some universities, are not enough to overcome the lack of strength elsewhere, notably in manufacturing and the bubble sectors (student debt, financial services and banking). On top of this they point to the lack of oil and gold assets, contracting asset prices, and the lack of equity, alongside historic weak growth, in order to argue that any focus on rebalancing the economy is nonsense. They argue that this is the result of decades of macro-economic policy that has framed the UK as a giant hedge fund. Moreover, a series of roll-backs of labour rights through attacks on Trades Unions, plus privatisation related to market efficiencies, has focused minds on productivity, but has led to an overreliance on debt as incomes are squeezed. In driving forward productivity manufacturing has been seen as secondary to services, including finance, consultancy, and increasingly education. Regulation and forms of credit control have been secondary to enterprise and innovation.

Crucially for Elliott and Atkinson, the crash in 2008 enabled the economy’s defects, which had been covered by three decades of financialisation, to be revealed. These defects include: chronic debt; a long-term attrition on real wages; illiteracy amongst large numbers of the public; a pension time-bomb; no plan for replacing oil/gas/nuclear energy; a deficit in tax receipts, which make socialised payment for the welfare state problematic; dysfunctional banking services; an overreliance on exports to Europe at a time of contraction; and an overreliance on the imports of assets including skilled labour. Moreover, there has been a balance of payments deficit since 1983, and in spite of talk about global markets, the UK’s international net asset position is negative to the tune of £325.6bn. There is: a deficit on trading goods; no rebalancing of the economy towards exports and away from consumption, so that engines of growth are consumer debt and mortgage lending, and not science and education; a private sector that has not invested but hoarded, with cash balances worth £754bn but levels of business investment at less than 2% per annum. For Elliott and Atkinson this is a bet on deleveraging and disinvestment. Moreover, Government-borrowing and rescue packages, plus loan guarantees and outsourcing, which are hidden from the balance sheet, total another £612bn of debt.

They argue that this highlights that the UK is experiencing a qualitative change in its economic status, and in how it views and structures itself, as it de-develops. It is locked into a world of increasing competition and rivalry over energy and resources, including labour. Thus, we face a reality checkpoint, as large segments of the UK population are threatened with increasing impoverishment and unreliable access to power, fuel, food, education, health and shelter. For these authors what is needed is an economic plan, which focuses on the roles of the market and the State, and that we will make better choices if we regard the UK as a submerging market economy.

The Elliott and Atkinson thesis connects to: the views of those in the financial press that fiscal austerity has not worked and needs to be geared around both public and private investment and recapitalisation; the recent article byHerndon, Ash and Pollin that critiques the original research on the relationship between public debt and GDP growth that underpinned austerity; and the calls of the IMF for the Government to rethink its austerity agenda in the face of weak growth. In each of these analyses the outcomes of a 2012 Europaeum report on the impact of fiscal policy on higher education is amplified:

the economic downturn has, on the whole, had a negative short-term impact upon public higher education programmes.European universities are being affected in many different ways during the current economic crisis – with winners and losers already emerging, and the differences set to be multiplied over the coming years depending on how the winners use their comparative advantage, and how the losers can best mitigate the effects of cuts through so-called efficiency savings or by raising new sources of income.

The University then, is being restructured as part of a response to a secular crisis, and academic work, productivity, the rate of profit and labour arbitrage are central to this issue. As Harry Cleaver’s first thesis on the secular crisis noted:

We are writing and talking about secular crisis because neither the cyclical business downturns nor the upturns, nor a whole series of capitalist counter-measures (local and international), have resolved the underlying problems of the system in such a way as to lay the basis for a renewal of stable accumulation. Thus, secular crisis means the continuing threat to the existence of capitalism posed by antagonistic forces and trends which are inherent in its social structure and which persist through short term fluctuations and major restructurings.

This is a point that Aaron Peters makes in his article on workfare as one of capital’s responses to the crisis. As Peters notes:

A discussion of surplus population is central to any enquiry as to the relationship between workfare and the secular crisis. The hypothesis runs that within the contemporary global economy there is a large and growing ‘surplus population’ that is incapable of accessing the labour market. Alongside this group is another yet larger one which frequently includes the ‘working poor’; temporary workers, part-time workers, agency workers, those on zero hours contracts and increasingly since 2008 the precarious self-employed. We know that this second group has grown throughout not only the course of the last several decades but particularly so since the Global Financial Crisis.

Yet employability and individual entrepreneurship developed through an appetite for debt and securitisation underpin the very restructuring of higher education in the global North. They are part-and-parcel of the changing organic composition of- capital and the restructuring required to deliver productivity and growth. What is clear is that there is no such analysis emerging from the leaders of universities, even whilst the austerity agenda that drives the restructuring of the sector is under attack from financial journalists, academic activists and even the IMF. The risk here is that even if a counter-narrative is developed through an analysis of the secular crisis, it is too late to recover the University in any form beyond that of competing capital subsumed under the dictates of money. Securitisation, indentured study, labour arbitrage, internationalisation, commodity-dumping in the global South, the enclosure and privatisation of previously socialised goods are all locked-in.

At issue then is Cleaver’s third thesis on the secular crisis, that of the struggle against capitalist work:

Capitalist rules impose the generalized subordination of human life to work. Whereas all previous class societies have involved the extraction of surplus labor, only in capitalism have all human activities been reshaped as work, as commodity producing labor processes. Those processes produce either use-values which can be sold and on which a profit can be realized or they produce and reproduce human life itself as labor power. Antagonism, resistance and opposition accompany this imposition because this way of organizing human life dramatically restricts and confines its development. People struggle both against their reduction to “mere worker” and for the elaboration of new ways of being that escape capitalist limits.

How might we develop educational spaces into which knowing and subjectivity might be developed, based in-part on socialised knowledge that is liberated from formal educational spaces? As Cleaver notes in his final two theses, at issue is the creation of a revolutionary subjectivity that is based upon

the liberation of alternative, self-determined social “logics” outside and beyond that of capital.

Such a revolutionary subjectivity is entwined with the need to develop

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

It is the secular crisis outlined by Elliott and Atkinson, the IFS and the IMF, and revealed inside-and-against the political economy of austerity, that is reshaping the very idea of the University. If we are to develop a meaningful, socially-constructed and democratic set of alternatives, they need to be placed against-and-beyond the secular crisis that is restricting and re-inscribing the very idea of the University.


Critical Pedagogies Symposium: educational technology and the enclosure of academic labour

I’m pleased to be presenting at a symposium titled Critical Pedagogies: Equality and Diversity in a Changing Institution, in Edinburgh in September. I’m going to speak about “Educational technology and the enclosure of academic labour inside public higher education”. My presentation links to the following symposium topics:

  • Teaching within and beyond the classroom space; teaching as activism; virtual learning environments;
  • Effects of neoliberal policies and philosophies in institutional life; Education as commodity.

Abstract: 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.


Against a bill of rights and principles for learning in the digital age

It is interesting that the drive to MOOC-ify both the forms of (higher) education and the idea of pedagogy, has quickly forked to the idea of a Bill of Rights for Learners. Downes has already noted that “if you ask me it’s pretty top-down and manipulative”. I know that in this brave new world, we are all defined as learners, but I find it intriguing that there is the idea of a Bill of Rights for learners that is not written by learners, in the traditional sense. It is written by people that I would define as educators with more/different social and cultural capital than, say, the 18-year old historians that I have had the privilege to work with. Thus, the preamble notes that this is produced by those who are “passionate about serving today’s students”; this is education-as-service industry, which leaves it ripe for co-option by those with an agenda of student-as-customer or consumer, rather than as co-producer. I also find it intriguing that there is an open invitation to help redraft/improve this Bill of Rights on the P2P site. I’m wondering how that will engage with those institutional learners across the globe, rather than engage specific groups in technologically-rich countries/educational settings.

Anyway, the draft made me think about the following issues.

  1. For whom does this declaration speak? Whom does it give power? Whom does it give a voice? Who is silenced and why?
  2. There is a specific presumption about what globalisation means. How a group of educators from the Global North are drafting/writing a Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age, witha cursory mention of globalisation and no focus on politics or disenfranchisement in the global South or even inside countries in the North. The idea that access is ubiquitous is developed alongside a depoliticised notion that equality of opportunity is enough, when inside the iniquities of an education system designed around capitalist work, this is never enough. A starting point might be the work of Glen Rikowski on the relationships between education, training and capitalism.
  3. How techno-determinism drives a view of constant, specific innovation, of emancipation achieved through access to capitalist work (embedded in the draft), and the underpinning idea of education for individual entrepreneurialism. The draft is almost solely focused on the flowering of the individual and how that has historically been denied institutionally through outmoded educational practices (whatever they are). In this way it resonates with the neoliberal ideal of the production of the entrepreneurial subject, separated or atomised out but given equality of opportunity to access the technological tools and debt-driven opportunities that signal the possibility of entering that productive process. Technology is merely an enabler or reinforcer of those possibilities, and yet here it is reified so that the ideals claimed for leaning are subsumed under its “potentially awe-inspiring opportunity”.
  4. How the focus on the learner, rather than communities of scholarly practice, is almost a disciplinary tool. For who can deny that empowering the learner is the aim of education? Who would dare say that #learnersrights should not drive this agenda? Yet this risks becoming a form of tyranny that dispossesses the voices of those who commit their lifetime to educating. Whither dissent when this is claimed as a unifying bill of rights for learners? Moreover, it risks separating out learners and teachers, for instance as opposed to the Social Science Centre’s focus on teachers and students as scholars as a community of shared educational practice and inquiry. The teacher appears forgotten in this Bill of Rights other than having responsibilities, of which the learner appears to have none, for s/he has only #learnersrights.
  5. Downes makes the point that History is forgotten in the Bill of Rights, that he authored a ‘Cyberspace Charter of Rights‘ in 1999. Before that we have: communiqués from occupied California that featured student/teacher manifestos for education and society; a whole history of redefining education as a social and socialised good back to 1968 and of redefining the relationships between education, educational forms and society; a raft of work on critical pedagogy as transformational, democratic praxis which emerges from the work of bell hooks, Henry Giroux and others; and the outpouring of what “learners” demand from education in the face of the discipline of austerity. Any Bill of Rights needs to understand its historical moment. At issue is whether this one does in any way that isn’t deterministic and presentist.
  6. The Bill cannot escape the structuring logic of capitalism. Work, value, money, the place and role of employers, and affordability are written throughout its DNA, and yet these come loaded with issues of power and politics that are at best hidden from view in the document. In this way its claims for emancipation are tied to problem-solving the worst excesses of capitalism, through affordable access, or transparency of data-mining and privacy, licensing laws and commodifying personal data etc. It is also interesting that financial transparency appears ahead of pedagogical transparency, and that money/work is a critical factor throughout. Where is the politics? Where is the power? Is financial transparency and the meaningful payment of educators really a defining moment of emancipatory education? Really?
  7. There is no mention of the implications and impact of crises of austerity, climate change, and liquid fuel availability here. All that is offered is “there is no alternative”. How does this Bill of Rights helps learners, teachers, or society manage disruption and become resilient in the face of crisis? How does it enable us to solve problems communally, beyond being the individual becoming fit-for-work?

The Bill of Rights reminded me that in being “inside”, we are able to be/define “against” and move “beyond”; to define meaningful alteratives. I take that as the important outcome of this Bill.

Thus, the Bill of Rights reminded me ofthe University of Utopia’s anti-curricula and the Third University’s precepts for alternative teacher training.

Addendum

Kate Bowles over on Music for Deckchairs has written the most eloquent critique of the original draft, based upon her view that the idea and forms of higher education are worth fighting for, and that democratic accountability isn’t just the province of the open web.

For me, there are two gaps. The first is a failure to understand or include what it takes for public education institutions to operate within the legislative constraints that are the ultimate protection for student rights, including student diversity. These can’t just be upturned because we want to, and to be honest, I don’t want to. There’s a whole lot wrong with higher education, but at some point we have to say that the work of making it possible is serious, complicated and driven by people who really mind about equity.

The second is a failure to recognise that it’s going to take a whole lot more than a motherhood statement to deal with the emerging problem of missionary zeal in North American higher education circles. I am really so tired of hearing that MOOCs will parachute in global superstar professors to save the world’s unserved populations.

In a separate comment, she made the point that “More and more it looks like offloading cheap copies in markets where we think proper educational credentials won’t really matter anyway.” Back in January 2010 I tried to make a case that educational institutions, publishers, tech-firms etc. operating inside global capitalism were using HE internationalisation agendas to open-up global markets for cheap commodities/for commodity dumping, both in order to overcome under-consumption in domestic markets and to maintain an increase in the rate of profit. With domestic demand falling for traditional, institutional HE places, especially for UK Russell Sector universities, the move to offshore/outsource and open-up new markets becomes paramount. With DBIS amongst others recalibrating the form of the traditional university as a business this is the logic of the structuring dynamics of capitalism applied to education and it flows through capital’s circuits into the spaces in which MOOCs/tech innovations operate. This is exactly why any Bill of Rights has to start with a deep critique of political economy and education’s place inside that structure.

So my final word for the moment has to be about the way in which this current debate has opened-up a debate about internationalisation, power, technology for entrepreneurialism etc.. What I would hope we can address is the extent to which declarations or bills of rights are a form of cultural hegemony or enculturation that reveal the ways in which civil society is restructured in the name of the individual rather than in the name of society. It is interesting that the original Draft contained no mention of “politics”, one of “society” and four of “community”/”communities”. The key is to address that restructuring process and the ways in which power-to make the world is co-opted by others power-over the spaces in which we operate. As Kate Bowles notes:

Reading the coverage that this has been given, here’s what I keep coming back to: the inestimable Henry Jenkins (just to show that I don’t have a problem with Americans), in his Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and The Politics of Education:

Visions always belong to someone, and to the degree that they translate into curricula and pedagogical practices, they not only denote a struggle over forms of political authority and orders of representation, but also weigh heavily in regulating the moral identities, collective voices and the futures of others.