on football, belonging, and shared, sensuous, practical activity

My experience and understanding of football has long been mediated politically. From 1999-2009 I set-up then chaired the Walsall Football Supporters Trust. In that time we sought ordinary shares in Walsall FC, and became the 10th largest shareholder at the Club. This meant we could ask questions of the Board at AGM, and in some way begin to hold the Club as a business (Walsall FC Ltd.) to account for the dialectical relationship between that business and the sporting side of the Club (Walsall Football Club), and the perceived subsumption of the latter to the former.

This dialectical relationship emerges inside a small, provincial Club that has an apparently undistinguished history, if you were to look at the books. This was revealed to me in a recent BBC Radio 5Live piece on FA Cup Third Round Day, of the greatest shocks in Cup History. Walsall’s defeat of Chapman’s Arsenal team was included as one of the top 10. Those charged with discussing this game had nothing to say about Walsall FC. Nothing to say about what this shock meant beyond framing it from Arsenal’s perspective, from the viewpoint of power. And this is the way that football is mediated for us, about who or what is in (money, status, power, bourgeois economics), and about who or what is out. And those who are out are marginalised and patronised and have no voice.

And for me this was what made the not-for-profit Supporters Trust, first as a Company Limited by Guarantee and later as a mutual, Industrial and Provident Society, so important. Through its organising principles and constitution it was designed to represent a set of community principles that anchored the football club in its locality and could then act as a vehicle for voice. This matters as much at Walsall FC as it does at Arsenal FC, where there are issues of power-over and representation that emerge in the relationships between supporters and Board, supporters and players, supporters and management, Council and Board, community and Club, and between different, representative supporter groups.

Thus, football becomes a mediation rooted in an immediacy that is cultural, historical, and material. Walsall FC sits in the shadow of local professional clubs with larger fan-bases in Birmingham, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton. Clubs that may have underachieved but which have won national and European honours. It is a Club that defines itself, intensely and acutely, as “we don’t come from Birmingham”. It is a Club that has won the Football League’s bottom division twice, being runners-up in the bottom two divisions a further six times. It has been football league play-off winners twice, League Cup semi-finalists once, and has never made it beyond the FA Cup 5th Round. It has had 36 managers since 1945.

NOTE: I fell out of love with football between 2009-11, and documented it as disillusioned Saddler.

This apparently limited footballing field of opportunity is mirrored in the Club-as-business which is effectively a small-medium enterprise, in terms of employees and turnover. This means that, in attempting to raise its profitability, and to grow its cultural and financial capital, pinch points emerge from the relationship between club-as-business and football club. These coalesced around: the controversy over the ownership of the Football Club and the land on which its stadium was built, and the sale and leaseback of the ground; the role of AGMs and supporter representation, and the relationship between Board and fans; and the perceived subsumption of Football Club’s identity to commercial interests of Walsall FC Ltd. These are, of course, natural tensions inside an institution that is mediated culturally, materially and financially. George Luckacs wrote of this in terms of conflicts of mediation and immediacy that create multiple viewpoints in tension, from the standpoint of the proletariat.

That is to say that every mediation must necessarily yield a standpoint from which the objectivity it creates assumes the form of immediacy. Now this is the relation of bourgeois thought to the social and historical reality of bourgeois society – illuminated and made transparent as it has been by a multiplicity of mediations. Unable to discover further mediations, unable to comprehend the reality and the origin of bourgeois society as the product of the same subject that has ‘created’ the comprehended totality of knowledge, its ultimate point of view, decisive for the whole of its thought, will be that of immediacy.

For supporters of a Football Club the immediate standpoint is on-the-pitch. It is “we don’t come from Birmingham”. It is “we are the pride of the Midlands”. It is “oh the lads, you should have seen their faces, going down the Wednesbury Road to see the Walsall Aces.”  It is “one step beyond”. It is this immediacy that congeals the wealth of cultural history of the football club. It is this moment that remembers that for all the apparently limited success on the field, there is belonging rooted in immediacy. For all that BBC 5Live had no way to give Walsall FC a voice in their 1933 victory over Arsenal, every Walsall FC fan holds that game in their heart. I remember my Granddad telling me that people said could hear the roars from Fellows Park miles away. And every Walsall FC supporter holds a 2-2 draw at Anfield in the League Cup semi-final against Liverpool in 1984, and a 0-0 draw away at Bury in 1995, and a 3-1 home win against Oldham in 1999, and a last minute equaliser away at Swindon in 2007, so deeply in their hearts.

And perhaps this immediate standpoint, and the contradictions that exist in the immanent relations of the football club, in the circulation of culture and history and football and money and competitive sport, are summed up by Darren Fellows in his description of Walsall FC’s unlikeliest promotion in 1999. Because he could see the multiplicity of conflicting mediations, yet he could still articulate the emotion of community and social humanity that is revealed by the concrete identification with other supporters.

In July 1998 we were nailed on 98/99 relegation favourites, had an inexperienced manager – Ray who?… Oh, and the majority shareholder and landlord wasn’t being particularly communicative with press or public nor especially sympathetic as the rent at [Walsall FC] became more and more of an issue amongst fans. Hope wasn’t as crushed as it is in 2012, but it wasn’t that much different. What happened over the next nine and a half months was as close to a miracle as you’ll ever see. Granted ultra discipline, togetherness, an unbelievable work ethic and the fact that everyone wanted to beat Manchester City all helped but Ray Graydon crafted the only team I have ever seen that was better on grass than it ever looked on paper and proved that impossible doesn’t exist. Misfits, cast-offs, those no-one else wanted and a couple of kids came together and blended to become the most efficient football team I’ve ever seen in Walsall shirts. And whilst they weren’t unbeatable, they never accepted defeat until the referee’s final whistle ensured there was no way back. They fought for themselves and each other like no other… It was, without doubt, the best season I’ve ever had Walsall FC watching… Miracles really do happen. I was there.

This brings me back to the problematic relationship between Football Club and club-as-business that emerged in the work of the Supporters’ Trust. The constitution of the Trust is rooted in collective work.

The Society’s purpose is to be the vehicle through which a healthy, balanced and constructive relationship between the Club and its supporters and the communities it serves is encouraged and developed.  The business of the Society is to be conducted for the benefit of the community served by the Club and not for the profit of its members.

The Society’s objects are to benefit the community by:

4.1 being the democratic and representative voice of the supporters of the Club and strengthening the bonds between the Club and the communities which it serves;

4.2 achieving the greatest possible supporter and community influence in the running and ownership of the Club;

4.3 promoting responsible and constructive community engagement by present and future members of the communities served by the Club and encouraging the Club to do the same;

4.4 operating democratically, fairly, sustainably, transparently and with financial responsibility and encouraging the Club to do the same;

4.5 being a positive, inclusive and representative organisation, open and accessible to all supporters of the Club regardless of their age, income, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexuality or religious or moral belief.

This is a reminder that in the face of the multiple points of mediation inside a football club, individual games, cup-runs, AGMs, cultural events at the stadium, negotiations over budgets, and so on, the football club itself acts as a moment of the production and circulation of cultural capital, through which supporters wrestle with owners and with other supporters over the ways in which it is financialised and monetised, and the ways in which that material, cultural relationship is used. And in the German Ideology, Marx highlights just how important it is to understand this interplay between power-over the capital relations that frame our existence and the production of that existence as a form of community. That we might only become ourselves through association. That Walsall FC becomes itself through its association with other football club for the means of playing football. That supporters become themselves through their collective work in creating and in remembering a cultural and material history that is not just their own, but is those of supporters of other clubs. This is why sharing the collective work of supporter ownership as a political mediation of a community asset is so important. Marx writes

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.

I write this because I grapple with my football identity as a form of false consciousness. I grapple with its political connotations in the face of my desire to belong. How can I belong to a game that is unable to escape its misogyny? How can I belong in a game that is unable to escape its militarism and nationalism and creeping fascism? How can I belong in a game that is us and them? Yet there is something about overcoming alienation in this moment. In revealing the tensions that are immanent to the game. There are issues of power and status here, as well as belonging. And the possibility of revealing alienation and therefore of pointing beyond it. Elsewhere Marx argues:

The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognises alienation as its own instrument and in it it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.

Where are the spaces to reveal that impotence, over the money available for players or the sale and leaseback of a football ground or the subsumption of a football club to its business-finance-relation? In this argument the alienation of the players or managers or Chief Executive or Board is lessened because of the space they have for agency and power-over activities on or off the field. Where are those spaces for supporters? These are so limited that they take the form of chanting, travelling to games, and remembering cultural and historical moments. Or they are displaced into the virtual. And in remembering Marx on Feuerbach, we might ask how these forms of displacement and disconnection that are felt by the supporter might become sensuous activity? How might they become the material of subjectivity, of community, rather than the becoming objectified and pejorative. How might we become more than “they are hooligans”, “they are misogynist”, “they are a law and order issue”?

And this matters to me because on Tuesday next week, Walsall FC have the biggest game they have ever played. This is a Club that has never played at Wembley in its 127 year history. One of only four Football League Clubs never to have played at Wembley. A club that has never won a national cup. So this becomes a game like no other. Different to a promotion because league form comes and goes, ebbs-and-flows, and you win some and you lose some. Different because, as my Dad says, “I can cope with the despair, it’s the hope that kills me”. Different because we understand our place. It is mainly in the third tier of the English Football League. It is mainly being knocked out of cup competitions early on. But it contains so many moments of history that we fight to remember and fight to renew, be they away at Bury or Liverpool or Swindon, or Gillingham. These are moments that are invisible or unknowable or unintelligible from the outside. But so rich with possibility and hope from within.

And this game in the Football League Trophy against Preston North End takes on an impassioned form of collective work, of association because of this possibility. Of collective work between players and manager and supporters and wider community that is stitched into the fabric of what the football club is and what it might be. It is the material history of the Club collapsed into one game. The relationships between the Club and its supporters, its community, its shareholders, its rivals, collapsed into one game. As Mark Jones writes:

Do it lads. For all of us, fans new and old, fans who’ve followed the club throughout all the lean times, for yourselves, for former greats who never got to take us there, for Albert McPherson and every other fallen Saddler, for the town, for our club, go on – do it.

This single game’s immediacy collapses all those other moments of mediation, so that in the moment of the game I am forced to ask whether it is possible for me to be activist and to retain my Self? How do I balance my pragmatism, my love for the game, my love for this Club, and my principle or conviction for voice? In part it is by seeing in this moment the possibility of sociability. Marx on Feuerbach argues that

The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.

The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity.

This is uncovering the potential for football as a form of sensuous, practical activity. An individual match that matters because it reveals the duality of hope and despair in this life. An individual match that matters because of our remembered stories and culture and history. An individual match that matters because it is shared, sensuous, practical activity; playing, managing, singing, despairing, hoping. This is the possibility that the game as a whole might enable some form of social humanity to emerge. The possibility that in the face of our lack of agency and power-over decisions and actions, which is revealed to football supporters on an hourly basis, I might learn to like the game again. Because I never fell out of love.


Beyond the University? Protest and anxiety

Back in August 2012 I wrote a note on the subsumption of academic labour that included the following.

This latter point brings me to the politics of higher education and the ways in which political society advocates in the name of the real subsumption of academic labour to the dominant order. The political realities of Vice-Chancellors as CEOs of businesses for whom the reality is the tendency of the rate of profit to fall cannot be ignored. This places them in the context of networks of neoliberal, transnational advocacy networks. This political reality disciplines the actions that academic managers and administrators can take, either supported by the State or quiescent in the face of its power, and places them in opposition to those academics and students whose labour they need to recalibrate for the market.

As a result we see a range of political actions aimed at disciplining academics and students, including, but not limited to:

Similarly, this has given birth to a range of solidarity actionscommuniqués, and free universities, that are not simply a recasting of higher education in liberal terms around the notion of economic libertarianism or cost-free learning (as pervades the MOOC debate). These are deeply political claims for higher learning, and a critique and reclaiming of the university against-and-beyond capitalism.

However, the accrual of executive power within universities acting as corporations and the use of technology as a mechanism for surveillance and performance management, means that the explicit subsumption of academic labour under the realities of competition, productivity, efficiency and profit is inevitable. In this process the realities of force and political will by those with power-to create a dominant order trump individual protests. Force married to political will then invades the cultural realities of civil society, so that no matter how we argue for education as a public good, it is subsumed under the rule of money.

In this process of ensuring that the capitalist is the owner or proprietor of means of production on a social scale, the politics are the thing. How might a counter-narrative be generated that connects academic labour to student protests and the broader work of protests against austerity? What is the role of academic trades unions in coalescing and amplifying protest so that pushing-back against recalibration becomes possible? Or in the face of the logic of discipline and coercion, and a political will amongst networks of legislators and academic managers for recalibration, is the scope for the university to be regenerated as a space of resistance and protest too limited? In fact, is some form of exodus the only option?

It feels important to return to this point about our responses to subsumption, in light of the resurgence of student protest in the UK in the past few weeks, and the broader connections rooted in a counter-hegemonic solidarity. In particular the response of Jerome Roos in his Roar Magazine piece “From New York to Greece, we revolt ‘cus we can’t breathe” is important because it focuses on the concrete lack of justice. This also amplifies the demands of the students in occupation at Warwick, which centre upon justice and voice. The lack of a voice because the lack of justice is an illegal hold that restricts our space to breathe and live, and is a critical metaphor in protest and dissent. It leads Roos to note that (quoting Franz Fanon):

when we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.

And on Campus at Warwick, in the fight against its militarisation (#copsoffcampus), student activists state that:

Whilst we are viewed as consumers and not students, the higher education institution will continue to further marginalise and oppress those within and outside the university.

This reminds me of the Sussex students in occupation against privatisation and outsourcing of whom Gurminder Bhambra wrote:

The eviction and criminalisation of students involved in civil disobedience against policies with which they and many others fundamentally disagree is contiguous with other attacks that undermine our public university system. But despite the barriers put in their way, the ever-creative students at Sussex continue to find new ways to give voice to the broader movements of dissent.

What appears to be emerging is the University as a specifically-recalibrated form of anxiety machine, where the space itself acts as a crucible of projected anxieties and forms of social (self-)harm. The anxieties of senior managers forced to compete for artificially scarce resources in an increasingly marketised and financialised corporate space. The anxieties of the Police described in terms of the following practices by the Warwick branch of UCU:

A video, which was subsequently posted on YouTube, showed students being grabbed and pushed and having their hair pulled, followed by CS spray being used at very close range. Also in the footage, a taser gun can be seen and heard, and there have been subsequent reports that it may have been discharged against one student. At the time of writing, three students are being held at Coventry police station.

The anxieties of students revealed in this statement from a Warwick student activist who was arrested:

Activism is arduous – it is, for myself and I know many others, a flurry of sleepless nights; shirked self-care and study; perpetual vacillation between punishing, disenchanting sadness and the utmost euphoria; it is seconds, minutes, hours in prison cells which can’t quite be traced, which dilate and mystify and fade into oblivion; it is a state of flux, bound somewhere between fantasy and reality, a stasis of promise and despair; of internal conflicts and multiple houred debates which will never find resolution; it is mental health problems we can’t quite process or understand; it is daring to dream within a world of horrors and atrocities. It is all-consuming and obsessive, incarcerating as much as it liberating. 

Elsewhere I wrote about the University as anxiety machine, where the projection of anxiety emerged through the fabric of relationships.

This is the dissolution of the University as a means for the domination/hegemony of a particular world view or a specific class. This is the dissolution of the University as a coercive space that is re-forged inside-and-against student-debt and impact and research excellence and analytics and employability and entrepreneurship. This is the dissolution of the University as the civil society of tenured professors versus casualised precariat.

I wonder if the University’s functions now are being redesigned so that they reproduce a sense of anxiety as a permanent state of exception. Inside this marketised University space, the idea of the public is being atrophied, kettled, disciplined, sold-off. It is difficult to envisage how the University might be reclaimed. This is more so given the wider sense of social injustice, linked to the politics of austerity. Precarity and volatility, as Ilargi notes at The Automatic Earth, underpins the transfer of resources to those with power and the accumulation of wealth by an elite, which threatens a clash of social forces. This clash is already happening in student/worker occupations, indignations, demonstrations, strikes, and so on, that are aimed against neoliberalism and austerity across the globe. Ilargi notes:

If we presume that a connection exists between the increase in debt on one side and the increase in “asset value” on the other, then I would say chances are we’re looking at both a gigantic wealth transfer from the poor towards the rich and a huge bubble that allows that to happen, and that will make the poor even poorer when it bursts. Which seems inevitable, because debt by itself cannot create value.

And if I’m right, what we’re seeing is not the incredible resiliency of the markets, and no real increase in asset value, but an increase in the threat to the social cohesion of our communities, cities and nations.

However, student protests remind us that it is less difficult to see how higher education might be reimagined beyond the University, as a form of what William Robinson calls social movement unionism.

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

In reimagining higher education as a point of production, reproduction and circulation of alternatives, this week’s Co-operative Education conference is important through its focus on Education about co-operatives, Education for co-operatives, and Education in a co-operative way. What is needed is a sense of how and where the subsumption of academic labour might be refused, and a higher education rooted in mass intellectuality beyond the University may be a starting-point.


on the academic commons

Joss Winn reminds me that Karl Marx’s Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association, “The First International” in late October 1864, included the following statement about the political importance of collective work, association and combination, as a bulwark against the economic and political power of Capital. 

One element of success they [Labour] possess — numbers; but numbers weigh in the balance only if united by combination and led by knowledge. Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries, and incite them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts.

I think about this in academia today because Joss is running his final WordPress workshop (related to the Lincoln University Academic Commons). The Lincoln Commons, alongside the work of ds106 and collective work at University of British Columbia was the inspiration for the DMU Academic Commons, which is rooted in collective organising principles, in terms of its decision-making and production/consumption/distribution.

[The DMU Commons is] open, and will encourage generosity, respect, tolerance and sharing. Our DMU Commons will enable permeability and fluidity in collaboration, supporting autonomy in our shared production of DMU as a University committed to engaging with useful social reproduction. Our Commons will help shape DMU as a “knowing University”, where thinking is shared in public, in order to enable society/communities to solve problems, develop alternatives and innovate.

I have discussed the idea of the academic Commons under this tag, although I have been more specific about it, in terms of:

There are examples of student-led, staff-led, public/University spaces, curriculum, journal/publishing, and project sites on the DMU Commons, here.

Current blog-posts and updates are accessible from our aggregator, here.

These developments owe much to the work of Joss Winn and at DMU, Owen Williams.

This earth was made a common treasury/For everyone to share/All things in common.

Bragg, B. 1985. The World Turned Upside Down


Notes on pedagogy, free time and the abolition of wage labour

I’ve been reminded this week, by Joss Winn’s excellent article “Writing about academic labour” that

There is an understandable tendency among critics of the current crisis in higher education to want to restore the university to what it once was, to defend the university from changing into something else, to resist the real subsumption of academic labour under capital. I think this misunderstands the university as a means of production and its historical role.

Joss analyses how the University is increasingly folded inside the ebb-and-flow of capitalism as a process of circulation in the name of value. The flow of circuits of production, commodity and money are structuring and re-structuring what it means to labour as an academic or as a student (wages for students, anyone?). In this way academic labour needs to be critiqued through labour theory, not in order to recuperate a golden age of scholarship and learning, but to re-appropriate and potentially liberate academics and students as organic intellectuals able to help society engage with critical, global problems. As Joss argues, central to this process is an understanding of academic work, by both academics and students, from the standpoint of labour.

When critically approaching the university as a means of production for the valorisation of capital, an emancipatory project must first focus on re-appropriating the means of knowledge production through efforts to control the substance of value: the labour process. This, I think, requires new models of democratic higher education organised directly through the co-operation of academic and student labour; models of practice which aim to re-appropriate the ‘general intellect’ (Marx 1973, 706) and which recognise “the existence of a growing gap between the sort of labour people continue to perform in a society mediated by labor and the sort of labor they could perform, were it not for this ‘necessity’ of capitalism.” (Postone 1993, 370) This effort must be grounded in a thoroughgoing critique of the political economy of higher education that starts from its most simple, immanent categories. It would recognise and develop the significant productive capacity of our existing historical conditions in a way whereby human knowledge or “mass intellectuality” (Dyer-Witheford 1999, 488) is seen as the emancipatory project rather than a resource for valorisation.

In a recent article “On the Abolition of Academic Labour: The Relationship Between Intellectual Workers and Mass Intellectuality”, I also argue for a critique of academic work as labour, in terms of:

  1. the mechanisms through which academic autonomy is increasingly alienated inside-and-against the University;
  2. how this alienation relates to the recalibration of the University as an association of capitals;
  3. how academic labour might be understood in concrete and abstract terms, and then abolished as part of a social struggle for subjectivity that is situated against value production and accumulation; and
  4. whether it is possible to liberate academic labour as a form of mass intellectuality that can be used inside and across society?

Akin to Joss, I also wondered about the potential for co-operative alternatives based on solidarity, where they connect to a radical, societal, democratic project of refusal, as transitional, pedagogical moments.

In this, both Joss and I focus upon Moishe Postone’s focus on time and labour as structuring capitalism’s domination.

Central to Marx’s conception of the overcoming of capitalism is his notion of people’s reappropriation of the socially general knowledge and capacities that had been constituted historically as capital. We have seen that, according to Marx, such knowledge and capacities, as capital, dominate people; such re-appropriation, then, entails overcoming the mode of domination characteristic of capitalist society, which ultimately is grounded in labor’s historically specific role as a socially mediating activity. Thus, at the core of his vision of a postcapitalist society is the historically generated possibility that people might begin to control what they create rather than being controlled by it. (Postone 1993, 373)

In this analysis, whilst transitional, co-operative organising principles are important, autonomy over time, and agency in the activities that are usefully and socially structured by time are pivotal. Here I am reminded of an excellent blog-post by Jehu on communism and wage-slavery, entitled (pace BB King) “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die to get there”. Here Jehu states that the premise of communism or a post-capitalism cannot be rooted in the abolition of the wage, or in the working class wishing to give up the possibility of an improved standard-of-living rooted in a job that pays a decent wage. Who wants to give up their access to consumer goods and holidays, aside from the impact of indenture and [private/state] debt-bondage on the need to labour? Jehu notes:

why, in all of [the co-operative or solidarity economy or state capitalist/socialist] examples cited, do we never clearly see a path to the end of class, labor, property and the state? Because they can never move beyond certain definite limits, these systems always collapse into some new state, some new method of coercing labor, and some new form of property.

In this argument, post-capitalism “appears in this society as a catastrophe to existing society.” The end of capitalist work is stagnation, no-growth or de-growth, or the inability to buy a specific set of activities or things. This is economic depression, austerity, unemployment, debt and social dislocation. It is also asset and wealth transfer to a transnational elite. Critically, writes Jehu:

To go from a situation where everyone has to sell their labor power to communism under the premises of present society implies an ever bigger shitload of people can’t find work. Communism may be the end of wage labor, but getting to the end of wage labor implies ever increasing unemployment, competition to sell labor power and social disruption. And if people can’t find work, they will turn to people who promise to create work, not those who argue we can live without it.

Trying, then to fight or struggle for any alternative is placed asymmetrically against valorisation as the structuring reality of society, and which forces us at a deep psychological level to accept our alienation from ourselves, because for those who rely on a wage to survive “the end of wage labor [is] an actual mortal threat to [their] physical existence, as the threat of starvation.” Matters are worse, as Simon Clarke argues in an essay on neoliberalism, because:

While real wages may have risen, the creation of new needs by capital has meant that the socially determined subsistence needs of the population have risen more rapidly, forcing an ever growing proportion of the population to seek work to augment the household income in the attempt to meet those needs. At the same time, a growing proportion of the population is unable to meet the ever-increasing employment demands of capital, while those in employment face the ever-growing threat of losing their jobs.

And this precarious existence, coupled to consumer needs, has also faced an assault on societal benefits and collectively-negotiated safety nets:

the mounting cost of collective provision to counter the tendencies of capitalist accumulation has given force to the neo-liberal attempt to replace collective provision with private provision through insurance-based systems, which provides yet another channel through which capital can intensify the exploitation of the mass of the working population by intensifying and profiting from their fear of misfortune.

However, Jehu is clear that there is a distinction between the capitalist class, for whom the end of capitalism would be the end of production for value and power of the means, forces and relations of production, and the working class. Here control of the means of production of use values across society and the liberation of free time as a structuring reality of that society becomes a critical field of conflict, especially in terms of autonomy over the use of time or the availability of free-time.

Theoretically the separation of the production of use values from the production of exchange values can only begin once the productive activity of the working class is not solely engaged in production of exchange value. This requires society has free disposable time to engage in productive activities that do not and cannot in any way aim at producing exchange values.

In other words, the separation of production of use values from exchange values is possible only when free disposable time of society becomes the prime source of use values. I think this cannot happen until almost all (or at least the largest part) of the personal time of individuals in society is free disposable time. The larger the quantity of free disposable time society possesses, the more likely this free time will itself become the most important source of material wealth.

The problem we face at present is that the production of material wealth cannot be separated from the production of value, because the working class has very little time of its own to engage in any activity that is not premised on value production. This cannot be fixed by demanding the state create jobs, handout basic income, raise the minimum wage or other measures very popular on the Left right now. It cannot even be fixed by more advanced ideas like market socialism, cooperatives and even Soviet style central planning.

The problem is not how wage labor is organized, managed or compensated; it is how communists propose to abolish it in a way that does not result in a catastrophe.

In his analysis of neoliberalism, Simon Clarke argues that any struggle for the abolition of wage-labour and for transcending the structuring realities of capitalism runs counter to the realities of needing access to the next [smartfone] or holiday in the Sun or cultural activity, which in-turn requires a perpetual, fiscal transaction in the present. Any such struggle also runs counter to a hegemonic project aimed at the transnational incorporation of the present and the future inside the law of value. As a result all sociability and all of life are re-produced for value.

The economist critics of neoliberalism have repeatedly exposed how restrictive and unrealistic are the assumptions on which the neoliberal model is based. However, to argue that the neoliberal model is unrealistic is somewhat to miss the point, since the neoliberal model does not purport so much to describe the world as it is, but the world as it should be. The point for neoliberalism is not to make a model that is more adequate to the real world, but to make the real world more adequate to its model. This is not merely an intellectual fantasy, it is a very real political project, to realise which neoliberalism has conquered the commanding heights of global intellectual, political and economic power, all of which are mobilised to realise the neoliberal project of subjecting the whole world’s population to the judgement and morality of capital.

This underscores Ellen Meiksins-Wood argument that:

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.

These ideas of labour and time, pivoting around the twin aspects of the concrete and the abstract world, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to exist in a world structured around the wage, underpin the difficulties that Anselm Jappe highlights in his critical analysis of the impact of value and labour on our everyday narratives. He argues that a post-capitalist project would have to overcome the labour theory of value as it plays out in “othering”. He writes of

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”).

Critically we are reminded of these processes of projection that are themselves defences against the alienation of wage-labour in the State’s reaction to Occupy Democracy in London, and in the party of organised labour’s attack on immigration as a function of “progressive politics”, and in the party of organised labour’s belief that “if we want to live better than others, then we will have to be better than others”, and in the reaction of local businesses in #Ferguson Missouri to protests about the shooting of Michael Brown. In the latter it was reported by businesses that:

“I know customers who have left the area … I just want everything to go back to normal and everyone can do business again.”

“We’ve just been trying to go to work, business as usual – nobody wants to take the boards down until we see what happens. It’s more of the not knowing what’s going to happen next.”

Whither human or labour rights in the face of economic uncertainty? And who has power-over the narratives that other or that decide who is to be othered? Who has power-over narratives that dehumanise in the face of the scarcity of value? And what courage does it take to refuse or push-back against these narratives?

And earlier this week I saw the film made shortly after the occupation of the Horney College of Art, called The Hornsey Experiment. It reminded me that so many of the defences that appear to have emerged in short-order since 2008, as apparently governmental/neoliberal responses to the forms of direct action that are our collective opposition to the politics of austerity, were also present in the 1960s. That the courage it takes to refuse has a historical and material lineage that is often communal. At Hornsey, there was opposition to the marketization and accreditation of learning, and to the subsumption of learning and teaching for capitalist work, rather than as humanistic activities rooted in love. There was opposition that took the form of general assemblies and occupations. There was opposition that took the form of a new pedagogy of production, with clear links through to the liberation-praxis of the anti-University of London, the Mental Furniture Industry, and Project Sigma. There was opposition that was leaderless and invisible and which lacked demands. There was opposition that simply wished to enact power-over the production of art as a form of sociability, and power-over the organisation of the space, in ways that were against-and-beyond the formalised, accredited curriculum.

The oppositional pedagogy uncovered in the Hornsey Experiment reminded me of the dissonance that Nina Power wrote about, and which might be re-formed as a form of anti-cynicism to prevailing anti-humanist pedagogies.

Theories of universal pedagogy, that is to say, “a pedagogy that takes nothing for granted,” and the attempt to put these into practice may seem out of place in this brave new world of student consumerism and universities-as-businesses, an archaic throwback to outmoded, optimistic Enlightenment models of generic capacity and the promise of knowledge for all. Yet, perversely, the assumption of universalist, egalitarian, rationalist (although not in the sense the market would understand it) principles (or axioms, as we shall see) in education may be precisely the way out of a certain deep cynicism that pervades the attitudes of students toward their degrees, of lecturers to their students, and of the university to its responsibility to educate, and not merely to train.

The Hornsey Experiement was met with threats of Police dogs and barbed wire fences, alongside alleged criticism and cynicism from some local people. Moreover, under the promise of discussions about a new organisational structure, curriculum and pedagogical approach for the College, the occupation ended and was neutralised in the bureaucracy of the College’s administrative structures. The energy of the general assembly was dissipated in the dampening of the committee structure, and in the midst of deliberation in hegemonic structures those with power-over the College securitised the space so that occupations would be harder to achieve, and then excluded students who had occupied, and demanded that visibility and accreditation would be the productive order of things. As Bourdieu and Passeron argue in Reproduction in Education Society and Culture:

An educational system based on a traditional type of pedagogy can fulfil its function of inculcation only so long as it addresses itself to students equipped with the linguistic and cultural capital – and the capacity to invest it profitably – which the system presupposes and consecrates without ever expressly demanding it and without methodically transmitting it.

Those with power-over demand control over our sociability reinforced through a specific type of cultural value, which as Clarke, Jehu and Jappe note has a certain morality attached to it. It is inside-and-against this hegemonic, cultural normalisation that an alternative, transitional politics has to emerge, rooted in the idea of free time. For Alexander Trocchi, in the glow of Project Sigma, this meant the liberation of time for relatively elastic forms of spontaneity and experiment to take root:

Each branch of the spontaneous university will be the nucleus of an experimental town to which all kinds of people will be attracted for shorter or longer periods of time and from which, if we are successful, they will derive a renewed and infectious sense of life. We envisage an organization whose structure and mechanisms are infinitely elastic; we see it as the gradual crystallization of a regenerative cultural force, a perpetual brainwave, creative intelligence everywhere recognizing and affirming its own involvement.

However, at issue is still Jehu’s question of how any such spontaneous, pedagogical experiments enable us to work toward the abolition of wage labour in a way that does not result in a catastrophe. For Marx in The German Ideology this issue has to be addressed communally.

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.

Quite how this is to be done in the face of socio-environmental catastrophe, the politics of austerity, crippling levels of personal and State debt, reduced access to cheap, liquid fuel, and the cultural imperative to maintain standards of living and growth-based agendas as the structuring realities of life is another issue.

on mutual values and open co-operativism

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

ONE. On open co-operatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWO. On sustaining the Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE: On governance and mutualism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOUR: The conditions of austerity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I argue elsewhere:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIX: On values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a lesson in there somewhere.

Friction, co-operation and technology in the neoliberal university

I’m presenting at “Friction: An interdisciplinary conference on technology and resistance in May. My abstract is noted below.
In the Grundrisse, Marx argued that the circulation of productive capital was “a process of transformation, a qualitative process of value”. As capitalists sought to overcome the barriers to this transformatory process, they worked to revolutionise both the means of production via organisational and technological change, and circulation time via transportation and communication changes. Reducing friction in the production and circulation of capital is critical to the extraction of surplus value, and Marx argued that in this transformation “Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier [and]… the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.”
Higher education is increasingly a space which is being recalibrated so as to reduce friction and thereby to increase the mobility or fluidity of intellectual production and circulation. Thus, technology, technical services and techniques are deployed to collapse the interfaces between geography, space and time. However, this collapse also reveals the stresses and strains of antagonisms, as the friction of neoliberal higher education reform deforms existing cultures and histories. It also points to alternatives like those emerging from analyses of the Chilean CyberSyn project or the Ecuadorian National Plan for Good Living.
This paper argues that inside the University, the deployment of technologies, technical services and techniques enables education to be co-opted as an institutional means for production and control. As a result, academics and students are defined as entrepreneurial subjects. A question is the extent to which the friction that emerges from this neoliberal pedagogic project can be used to describe alternatives, and whether in the process it is possible to uncover ways in which education might be used for co-operation rather than competition, as a form of resistance.

Notes on hegemony and counter-narratives

ONE. Transnational activist networks for privatisation

Stephen J. Ball and Deborah Youdell, Hidden Privatisation in Public Education.

Global privatisation tendencies reflect both an orchestrated escalation on the part of dominant governments, international organisations and private companies and an unintended international policy drift towards greater levels and more diverse forms of privatisation in and of public services – privatisation as policy commonsense. Certainly however, highly influential western governments and international organisations actively promote privatisation as desirable and necessary for the economic development of the world’s poorer nations and as part of their own economic strategies.

Privatisation in its multiple forms is being taken up globally. Forms of privatisation, such as choice and per-capita funding, pave the way for further reform moves such as devolved budgets, competition between schools and the use of published performance indicators. For-profit organisations are playing a greater part in education design and delivery. However, most of the privatisations in and of education remains hidden within more general education reforms and there is an almost complete absence of public debate around these issues.

(Saltman 2000) argues that the hegemony of the market – its acceptance as self-evident common sense — and the profit incentive are displacing the struggle over values, which is an essential condition of democracy. What we are seeing here is a kind of collapse of the boundaries between moral spheres, which follows the breakdown of the demarcations between public and private provision and between social and opportunity goods.

The various approaches to education outlined above work together to make education more like a ‘commodity’ owned by and benefiting the individual and her/his employer within which ‘…everything is viewed in terms of quantities; everything is simply a sum of value realised or hoped for’ (Slater and Tonkiss 2001) rather than a public good that benefits the society as a whole. This is the displacement of use values by exchange values. While policy accounts of education matched to the needs of employment and the economy – a human capital approach — argues that this benefits society as a whole by creating a strong economy as well as individual wealth, it is difficult to see this in practice. Furthermore, there is a conceptual shift from education as an intrinsically valuable shared resource which the state owes to its citizens to a consumer product for which the individual must take first responsibility, as it is this individual who reaps the rewards of being educated. This conceptual shift changes fundamentally what it means for a society to educate its citizens.

The market in education is no longer simply a matter of choice and competition between educational institutions but rather is a diffuse, expanding, and sophisticated system of goods, services, experiences and routes – publicly and privately provided.

Endogenous privatisation, that is, privatisation in education, provides the possibilities for further policy moves towards forms of exogenous privatisation, or privatisation of education.

Education services are now ‘big business’ and an increasing number of national and international firms are looking to make profits from selling services to schools and goverments and from the delivery of state services on contract. Some countries now earn a considerable proportion of their export revenue from educational services sales. Business is also increasingly involved with local and national governments and educational institutions as ‘partners’ (PPPs). These partnerships vary widely in their form and in their effects.

One increasingly common form of ‘partnership’ are PFI schemes. Privatisation works as a policy tool in a number of ways, with a variety of ends and purposes. It is not just the state giving up its capacity to manage social problems and respond to social needs. It is a new modality of state action. The privatisation of education and social welfare involves a shift in the role of the state from that of delivering education services directly, to that of contractor, monitor and evaluator of services delivered by a range of providers.

Privatisation tendencies, both endogenous and exogenous, have profound implications for the future of teachers’ careers, pay and status, and the nature of their work and their degree of control over the educational process. The ‘flexibilisation’ of teachers work is a key component of most versions of

privatisation and this threatens to alter both the perception of teachers within society and the quality of students’ experience in schools.

TWO. Networks of transnational hegemonic power.

Vitali, Glattfelder, Battiston.The network of global corporate control.

In the first such analysis ever conducted, Swiss economic researchers have conducted a global network analysis of the most powerful transnational corporations (TNCs). Their results have revealed a core of 737 firms with control of 80% of this network, and a “super entity” comprised of 147 corporations that have a controlling interest in 40% of the network’s TNCs.

We present the first investigation of the architecture of the international ownership network, along with the computation of the control held by each global player. We find that transnational corporations form a giant bow-tie structure and that a large portion of control flows to a small tightly-knit core of financial institutions. This core can be seen as an economic “super-entity” that raises new important issues both for researchers and policy makers.”

As a result, about 3/4 of the ownership of firms in the core remains in the hands of firms of the core itself. In other words, this is a tightly-knit group of corporations that cumulatively hold the majority share of each other.

…despite its small size, the core holds collectively a large fraction of the total network control. In detail, nearly 4/10 of the control over the economic value of TNCs in the world is held, via a complicated web of ownership relations, by a group of 147 TNCs in the core, which has almost full control over itself. The top holders within the core can thus be thought of as an economic “super-entity” in the global network of corporations.”

top holders are at least in the position to exert considerable control, either formally (e.g., voting in shareholder and board meetings) or via informal negotiations.

Andrew Gavin Marshall. Global power project, part 5: banking on influence with Goldman Sachs.

There are several individuals holding leadership positions with Goldman Sachs who represent what we refer to as the global ruling class – or global plutocracy – by virtue of their multiple positions on numerous boards and advisory groups, think tanks, educational institutions, and other important institutions of influence, giving them unparalleled access to policy-makers around the world.

THREE. Hegemonic power needs hegemonic narratives

Raúl Ilargi Meijer.Debt Rattle Feb 6 2014: Remember “Uncharted Territory”?

And you might say: those guys are always pessimistic, look at how great we’re doing, and many people say exactly that, but if that were the real story, then how does one explain away the notion that the entire global QE family has lifted those markets to where they stand today, knowing QE can’t go on forever? At the end of the day, it’s still simply shoveling more debt upon a mountain of debt already easily unprecedented in history (and history’s seen a few).

The British government has grown fond of using the term “escape velocity”, which supposedly means that if they just frack the entire nation to bits, squeeze the poor till they’re all so dry no clean unfracked drinking water is needed, and sell every single home in London to Asian dieselgarchs who’ve gotten rich off of China shadow banking virtual fantasy yuan printing, the UK economy will set off for the stratosphere selling its exports to all the countries who were neither so smart nor so lucky, and don’t have a penny left to buy those exports with. Escape velocity is empty political rhetoric. And there’s plenty of that. Spin doctors must be busier and more in demand than ever before. There’s such a load of nonsense being sold on a daily basis.

You can of course wait for the markets to fall. And whether it’s 20% or 40% is immaterial. It’ll lead to absolute panic. And when the smoke clears your wealth, your pensions, everything you don’t have hidden away, will be used to once again prop up the financial system that can’t be allowed to fail “or else”. Well, you’ll already be squarely inside the “else”. How to prevent the worst of this? Open the banks, their books, their vaults. Burn everything that smells too much like it’s died. Secure people’s deposits up to a maximum. Go through the hundreds of trillions in derivatives, and clear them. At the same time, set up new banks, real small, get rid of the glass monstrosities and design some nice parks where they stood in lower Manhattan. Preferably with edible crops and lowers.

But as I said, you can also wait for things to happen, markets to plunge, and see how uncharted the territory can become.

FOUR. Transnational organisational principles to confront transnational capital

Latin America, State Power, and the Challenge to Global Capital. An Interview with William Robinson. UPPING THE ANTI, NUMBER THREE, pp. 59-75.

the key question remains how popular forces and classes can utilize  state power to transform social relations, production relations, and so forth. And once you raise that question, you have to talk about what type of political vehicle will interface between popular forces and state structures. That’s the big question raised by the current round of social and political struggle in Latin America: what’s the relation between the social movements of the left, the state, and political organizations? Previously there was a vertical model. In the last 15 or 20 years, the emphasis has been on horizontal relations, networking among different social groups, and cultivating much more democratic relations from the ground up. These shifts in emphasis have all been spearheaded by the indigenous organizations in Latin America. While I support that politically, at some point you need to talk about how vertical and horizontal intersect. This is precisely one of the problems with the autonomous movements in Argentina, among others. In attempting to overcome the old vertical model of vanguardism and bureaucratism, they’ve gone to the other extreme. But without a political vehicle you can’t actually bid for state power or synchronize the forces necessary for radical transformation.

Every time there has been a new integration or reintegration into world capitalism there has been a corresponding change in the social and class structures of Latin America, as well as a change in the leading economic activities around which social classes and groups have mobilized. [This is based on transnational accumulation and the integration of national industrial activities as component phases of global production; internationalisation of migration/service; global agribusiness; and the export of labour to the global economy and global labour arbitrage.]

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

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

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

FIVE. On the organisation of counter-narratives

Antonio Gramsci. Workers’ Democracy.

The labour movement is today directed by the Socialist Party and by Confederation of Labour; but the exercise of the social power of the Socialist Party and of the Confederation takes place, for the major mass of workers, indirectly, by force of prestige and of enthusiasm, by authoritarian pressure, thus by inertia. The sphere of prestige of the party expands daily, reaches working classes hitherto untouched, implants the consensus and desire to work vigorously for the coming of communism in groups and individuals up to now absent from the political struggle. It is necessary to give a political form and a permanent discipline to these disordered and chaotic energies, to absorb, assemble and empower them, to make of the proletarian and semiproletarian class an organized society which educates itself, which makes its own experience, which acquires a responsible consciousness of the duties which fall to the classes come to state power.

But the social life of the working class is rich with institutions, it articulates itself in multiple activities. Precisely these institutions and these activities need to be developed, organized together, connected in a vast and flexibly articulated system which absorbs and disciplines the whole working class.

The University, the crisis and academic activism

I’ve just submitted this for the Higher Education Academy’s 2014 conference. It’s not contentious to me. But let’s see if it gets accepted…

Short abstract: The University is broken. The game is up. It is conditioned by neoliberal politics through the tenets of growth, financialisation and securitisation. Its twin contributions to society take the form of debt and privatisation. At issue is which knowledges and practices can be liberated from the University before it is too late.

Outline: This session will describe how the idea and reality of the University is conditioned through the triple crunch of peak oil (or more specifically a lack of ready access to liquid fuels), climate change and economic crisis. Collectively these form a crisis against which higher education is recalibrated and restructured. However, in the face of a global neoliberal politics that constrains what can be contested, it is increasingly difficult to see beyond the everyday realities of economic growth, the normalisation of debt-driven study that takes the form of indenture, and the disciplining of academic labour through outsourcing, privatisation, financialisation, impact measures, organisational development, and so on.


The concern then is that these factors become reinforcing, and that the drive for GDP and growth recalibrates the University around the rule of money. Inside this marketised space/time an agenda of privatisation based on evidential assertion or problem-solving theory is presented as de-politicised and normative, and enables private providers, working with private equity, technology firms, transnational finance, think tanks and politicians to lever open public education for profit. In this space/time, student debt becomes a key power source for this drive to privatise in the name of efficiencies, scale, value-for-money and impact, and in fact generates a pedagogic and structural view of student-as-consumer that further recalibrates higher education.


In the face of the triple crunch, and of the volatility imposed by the interrelationships between peak oil, our climate realities, and economic futures, what is the role of those who both labour and study in higher education? Can they say no, refuse, push-back or define alternatives? Or do acquiescence and exodus describe the only options? What kinds of conversations are academics having with society about our need for “more sophisticated financial engineering” to underpin increasing student debt? What kinds of conversations should academics be having with young people and their parents about the relationships between debt, real wage collapse, unemployment and precarity, in the face of the added volatility of access to the resources that keep the economy growing and climate change?


This paper will question the role of academic as activists in developing alternative methods of liberating knowing, knowledge and organisation, away from the University and into society more widely. Is it possible to liberate higher education from the space-time of debt and privatisation? The paper will briefly reference historical examples from South America, from global student/worker protests and occupations, and from the co-operatives movement, in order to ask whether it is possible for academics to describe a different space-time?

Keywords: Crisis, co-operation, neoliberalism, university, academic, liberation, space/time

Audience: This session is aimed at anyone who wishes an open discussion about the power and politics of higher education, and the ways in which critique of the organising principles for the University might be developed. In this way the session is designed to discomfort attendees, in order that a mirror can be held up to our practices as academics, and co-operative alternatives described.

Impact: The session is deliberately counter-hegemonic. My hope is that participants question the dominant narratives around higher education and find the courage to develop solidarity networks that lie inside, against and beyond the formalised university. If they do, then that is its impact.

Key messages:  

  1. The University is in crisis.
  2. Academics need to critique their role in maintaining the dominant narratives of economic growth and there is no alternative.
  3. Academic working with students have a key activist role in defining an alternative set of organising principles for higher education in society.




On co-operation, accumulation and the University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Endnotes argue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One outcome is generalised proletarianisation. As they go on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Educational technology and the crisis

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

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

ONE: we need to talk about capitalism.

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

TWO: we need to talk about labour-power.

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

THREE: we need to talk about technology.

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

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

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

FOUR: we need to talk about technology and resistance.

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

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

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

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

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

FIVE: we need to talk about recovering subjectivity.

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

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

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

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

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