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

ONE: outing capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWO: competition or co-operation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE: the co-operative university and associational democracy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… association to control their conditions of life together.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOUR: six sets of questions

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

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

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

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

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

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


On the secular crisis and a qualitative idea of the University

I was struck over the weekend by a friend’s statement that “I struggle to translate your critiques into the various education/technology contexts of the global South”. This is an issue that generally plagues those of us who work in higher education in the global North, and for whom the wider, global context is increasingly viewed through the prism of competition. Earlier this year, at the Alpine Rendez-Vous, a specific workshop tried to pull out some key questions for those working in the interstices between higher education and technology, in order to address some of these issues of private/public, quantitative/qualitative, development/global sustainability etc.. The workshop focused some thinking in the following areas.

  • Have we implicitly assumed that the western/European model of universities is necessarily the sole or best expression of a culture’s or a community’s higher learning and intellectual enquiry?
  • As western/European pedagogy, or rather the corporatised, globalised versions of it, now deploys powerful and universal digital technologies in the interests of profit-driven business models, should we look at empowering more local and culturally appropriate forms of understanding, knowing, learning and enquiring?
  • Is encapsulating the world’s higher learning in institutions increasingly modelled on one format and driven by the same narrow global drivers resilient and robust enough, diverse and flexible enough to enable different communities, cultures and individuals to flourish amongst the dislocation and disruption we portray as characterising the crises?
  • Our responses, for example personal learning environments or the digital literacies agenda, seem implicitly but unnecessarily framed within this western/European higher education discourse – can these be widened to empowered other communities and cultures entitled to the critical skills and participation necessary to flourish in a world of powerful digital technologies in the hands of alien governments, corporations and institutions?

Our increasing inability to view globalised higher education from any perspective other than that of competing nation states in a transnational system, and of universities as competing capitals inside that world-view, is highlighted by Matt Lingard’s report on the Universities UK event, Open and online learning: Making the most of Moocs and other models. Critically, Lingard highlights how MOOCs are being utilised to catalyse further marketisation of education in the global North with the on-line space being used less as a socially transformative experience, and more as a space for public/private partnership, in order to lever global labour arbitrage and strengthen the transnational power of specific corporations:

The world of MOOCs is full of partners. Universities are partnering with delivery & marketing platforms such as Coursera & Udacity. Companies such as Pearson are partnering with them to proctor in-person exams (eg find a test centre for your edX MOOC). The sponsors of the UUK event were Academic Partnerships & 2U. Slightly different services, but both working with universities to develop & deliver online courses. David Willetts hopes that MOOC & industry partnerships will develop & potentially help with the UK skills gap (such as computer science).

This increasingly competitive, efficiency-driven discourse focuses all activity on entrepreneurial activity with risk transferred from the State to the institution and the individual. The technology debate inside higher education, including MOOCs, falls within this paradigm and acts as a disciplinary brake on universities, just as the State’s marshaling against opposition to austerity acts as a disciplinary brake on individual or social protest. What is witnessed is increasingly a denial of socialised activity beyond that which is enclosed and commodified, be it the University’s attempt to escape its predefined role as competing capital, or the individual’s role as competing, indentured entrepreneur. As these roles prescribe an increasingly competitive identity for the student and the University, what chance is there for describing global alternatives that are not those of neoliberal institutions like the World Bank, the Education Sector Strategy 2020 of which declares:

Education is fundamental to development and growth. Access to education, which is a basic human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, is also a strategic development investment. The human mind makes possible all other development achievements, from health advances and agricultural innovation to infrastructure construction and private sector growth. For developing countries to reap these benefits fully—both by learning from the stock of global ideas and through innovation—they need to unleash the potential of the human mind. And there is no better tool for doing so than education.

The rights of the child are tied to strategic development investment, which is likely to come from transnational corporations and States in the North, with an outcome a strengthening of those labour pools for privatised knowledge, innovation and enterprise. In part, this reflects Marx’s development in the Grundrisse of a theory of crisis related to overproduction in one arm of the system:

in a general crisis of overproduction the contradiction is not between the different kinds of productive capital, but between industrial and loan capital; between capital as it is directly involved in the production process and capital as it appears as money independently (relativement) outside that process.

As a crisis of overproduction emerges in educational commodities in the global North, technology becomes a fundamental strand of a strategy for commodity-dumping and value extraction from other arms of the globalised system. Thus, the World Bank notes:

Another set of changes is technological: incredible advances in information and communications technology (ICT) and other technologies are changing job profiles and skills demanded by labor markets, while also offering possibilities for accelerated learning and improved management of education systems.

Technology ties the interface between development and education to labour markets and capitalist work, rather than to solving issues of social production, sustainability or global leadership in a world that faces: economic stagnation, including the threats to national and corporate debt and liquidity of an end to the bull market in bonds, a dislocation between the real and shadow economies, and falling corporate revenues that impact the rate of profit; climate tipping points through increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the oceans and atmosphere; problems of access to liquid resources like oil with a potentially catastrophic focus on shale oil and gas; and problematic access to food staples through commodities trading.

The issue of social production leads me back to the idea of the secular crisis, and Harry Cleaver’s work on reading capital politically. Cleaver’s first thesis on the secular crisis states that:

secular crisis means the continuing threat to the existence of capitalism posed by antagonistic forces and trends which are inherent in its social structure and which persist through short term fluctuations and major restructurings.

This systemic threat to the system is a function of the crisis inherent in capitalism’s need to maintain an increase in the rate of profit catalysed through revenues that can be levered from new markets, lower labour costs, or technological innovation. This tends however, to Cleaver’s second thesis, that of the crisis of the class relation:

The basic antagonistic forces which are inherent in the social structure of capitalism, which endure through the ups and downs of fluctuations and restructurings, which have been repeatedly internalized without ever losing their power of resurgence, are the negativity and creativity of the working class. The working class persistently threatens the survival of capitalism both because of its struggles against various aspects of the capitalist form of society and because it tends to drive beyond that social form through its own inventiveness. As opposed to all bourgeois ideologies of social contract, pluralism and democracy, Marxism has shown that working class anatagonism derives from capitalism being a social order based on domination, i.e., on the imposition of set of social rules through which, tendentially, all of life is organized. Class antagonism is thus insurpassable by capitalism within its own order because that antagonism is inseparable from the domination which defines the system.

In reflecting on the experiences of a competitive higher education in the global North and its role in the marketisation of everyday life in the global South, we might reflect on Cleaver’s use of the idea of systemic domination in the name of value, and his idea in Reading Capital Politically that we need to think about power and the use of a life constructed qualitatively rather than quantitatively.

The intensity of the struggle is dictated by the degree of power. When workers can organize sufficiently to directly appropriate wealth, they do so. At the same time, they struggle to obtain the kind of wealth they want — the work conditions, the leisure time activities, and the use-values. In this sense, too, the struggle is qualitative as well as quantitative.

In a globalised life that is restructured around the metrics of efficiency, value, enterprise, and where all life is enclosed and measured for-profit, are there alternative, qualitative descriptions of life that might enable alternatives to be developed? Are there alternative spaces that might be described qualitatively? One possibility lies in the idea of the commons and the praxis that emerges from commoning; a global idea of socialised solidarity that is exemplified in recent work on the wealth of the commons. This is a set of interconnected spaces that are social and negotiated, focused on a social dialogue between abundance and scarcity that enables democratic governance to shape life. As the epilogue to the wealth of the commons states:

To us, the evidence seems clear: people everywhere have a strong desire to escape the helplessness that institutions impose on them, overcome the cynicism that blots out optimism, and transcend the stalemates that stifle practical action. Another world is possible beyond market and state. This book chronicles some new ways forward – and the beginnings of an international commons movement.

It is inside this statement, and through a rediscovery of our global narratives of the commons and commoning that I might begin to reframe my work against the various education/technology contexts of the global South. Merely reframing it around solutions to the secular crisis of capitalism emerging in the global North does nothing for the development of a qualitatively different, resilient education. It is educational ideas and stories that are beyond the market and the state, which are social and co-operative that need to be described and nurtured. We might then begin to describe an alternative, qualitative future for the idea of the University in the face of the secular crisis.


On the University and a ‘revitalised public’

In his thin review of Andrew McGettigan’s ‘The Great University Gamble’, Nick Hillman argues that

As well as lacking historical awareness, the book has an odd take on current policymaking. McGettigan repeatedly asserts that the Coalition’s motives are concealed from view. The Government are proceeding ‘without presenting its plans or reasoning to the public.’ Opponents of the higher education reforms have been outmanoeuvred by politicians who call ‘snap votes’, ‘sneak passages’ into legislation and use ‘existing powers quietly’ (his italics).

This doesn’t stack up. The students who poured into central London in 2010 were not protesting at being kept in the dark about the Government’s intentions. The £9,000 tuition fee cap was announced in Parliament and later debated and voted on in both the Commons and the Lords. Other important elements of the student finance package, like the real interest rate, were in primary legislation that went through all the regular parliamentary stages. There has been a higher education white paper and an accompanying technical document as well as numerous public consultations on contentious issues, such as the regulation of alternative providers.

Two issues come to mind and both are rooted in the use of history by policymakers. First, the central point made by Hillman is that “important elements” were “in primary legislation” (my emphasis). They were in primary legislation; they were not in and of themselves primary legislation. This way of doing political business, by signalling a cultural shift through white papers, changes to VAT on shared services, technical consultations, changes to student number controls and core/margin allocations, sets a direction for marketization through tactical engagement. It is less about fighting the battle for ideas in public than it is about laying markers for marketization. One might argue that it is not about creating a deliberative space to discuss the realities of public or socialised education and what the University is for, but it is about cracking or fracturing what exists, in order to extract value from that system.

Maybe this is a function of there is no alternative, and the realpolitik of Coalition Government. However, it also reminds me of the policy-making of that disenfranchised wing of the Tory party, under both the Whig Junto Administration of the reign of William III and then Harley’s Administrations under Queen Anne, which sought to ‘Tack’ controversial legislation to finance bills so that they would not receive the scrutiny they deserved in Parliament. A second outcome was that the risk in removing the tacked legislation was that the finance bill, required for the functioning of the State, and especially the State at war for Empire, would fail. The key example was in 1704-05 when High Church (Tory) zealots in the Commons tried to force the third Occasional Conformity bill past the (Whig-controlled and more tolerant) Lords by tacking it to the Land Tax bill. This was seen to be factious and constitutionally dubious and followed a similar attempt in 1702, a bluff which the Lords threatened to call. (See Geoffrey Holmes’ magisterial British Politics in the Age of Anne.)

At issue here is the way in which policy, strategy and realpolitik stack-up in the face of a public space that is being cracked open and increasingly commodified. As McGettigan highlights elsewhere, the financial and governing complexities of that space, the meanings of public and private, and what we wish to be publically-funded, regulated and governed each need critique. This is where history comes in for the second time, and we might do well to reflect on Martin Daunton’s analysis of how the current financial crisis fixes on historical power and the humanity of History within policymaking:

What does history teach us? We need to understand the circumstances in which institutions were created, so that we are aware of their problems adapting to new circumstances. We need to understand the assumptions of different countries that are rooted in national histories. We also need to recognise how politicians and commentators are using and abusing history for their own purposes. And we need to understand that policymaking… cannot be reduced to neat theories and mathematical formulae.

Such a critical appraisal of the present, made in terms of the past, anchors the view that actual academic practices are socio-historically-situated, and operate at a range of scales within society. This socio-historical perception of the academic sits asymmetrically in relationship to what Stephen Ball defines as neoliberal transnational activist networks. These networks emerge as assemblages of activity and relationships that reinforce hegemonic power through shared ideologies and resource interdependencies. They consist of academics and think tanks, policy-makers and administrators, finance capital and private equity funds, media corporations and publishers, and so on, which aim at regulating the state for enterprise and the market. One such mechanism is private think-tanks, which utilise academically-funded research outputs or practices, and which support the incorporation of “important elements” “in primary legislation”, based upon: their belief in market economics as the key mechanism for overcoming scarcity, distributing abundance and overcoming disruption; their focus on policy and high politics; and their focus on the University as the point of departure for the privatisation of knowledge creation.

Critically, this then becomes a space inside-and-against which consent for the politics of marketization and restructuring can be manufactured. Witness the Future of the Higher Education Curriculum conference, which argues that:

As funding structures for higher education change, with universities now funded by student loans, it is imperative that universities deliver optimum teaching and learning and design their curricula to ensure student attraction and retention

In this process, the UK Coalition Government’s HE strategy threatens both to silence academics as independent, critical actors and to enclose such practices through: the removal of state subsidies; the individuation of educational experiences and risk in the name of entrepreneurialism; and the commodification of learning. We might then consider in this process of restructuring the role of our history, both in policymaking and in the idea of the public. As John Tosh argues for the historian so is true for academics more generally in the face of our current modus operandi for policymaking:

For historians themselves, good citizenship consists in contributing their expertise to the national conversation: exposing politically slanted myth, placing our concerns in more extended narratives, testing the limits of analogy, and above all showing how familiarity with the past can open the door to a broader sense of the possibilities in the present. That should be our contribution to a ‘revitalised public’.


On memory, profitability, disruption and socialised alternatives

On memory: In scoping the policy space inside which Australian Higher Education is being restructured, Kate Bowles argues for recognising the complexity of higher education in all its forms, and for finding spaces to contest the neoliberal mantra of efficiency. She argues that:

[academics] now need to speak up in precise and evidence-based ways about the opportunity cost of applying the Efficiency Dividend to something as complex and socially diverse as Australian higher education.

This is an important point that asks us to recognise and articulate the complexity of our socialised memory. How might we describe the pedagogic projects that form and are formed by our lives? What is needed is a historical analysis of the socialised nature of higher education and the socialised nature of the kinds of learning and knowing that take place inside its forms, as they are defined spatially and temporally. This socialisation is deliberately set against the individuated, commodified, entrepreneurial and venture capital-driven responses that currently infect our discussion of possible, alternative forms of higher education. David Kernohan exemplifies this need for a historical analysis when he argues against the simplistic reduction of the discussion of (massive and open) on-line education to its co-option by elites in the present. He recognises the relationships between historical memory, socialised value, and institutions as social spaces for generating and sharing knowing or knowledge:

Work needs to be done. But I am unable to agree that the answer lies in trying to subvert what already exists, because there is already an entire industry that has been trying to do that for 20 years, and they have already succeeded in destroying a lot of what was great about the old system. When we see academic conditions fall again and again, when we see new PhDs earning less than they would tending bar, when we see learners treated like numbers, we know that it could be better because in living memory it has been better. Maybe it is our memories we need to share with you.

On profitability: In defining and sharing the value of remembering, the mechanisms through which MOOCs or whatever-disruptive-innovations have been subsumed under or erased by “the missions of the elite colleges and universities [that t]hey were designed to undermine” (as Stephen Downes has argued), is less important than recognising that they represent one mechanism through which capital is seeking to restore its systemic profitability. Their relationship to universities as competing, global capitals, and inside the systemic drive to release new masses of surplus value that can underpin new forms of accumulation from new markets needs to be understood.

To argue for or against “the deeply subversive intent and design of the original MOOCs” is a secondary issue facing higher education. The deeper set of questions revolves around the real subsumption of the forms of higher education by transnational finance capital, in order to restore profitability in the face of global, structural crisis. Michael Roberts notes that “investment depends on profit – and profit depends on the exploitation of labour power and its appropriation by capital”. Thus, the relationships between venture capitalists, universities and colleges, and on-line providers, need to be seen systemically in terms of capital’s overcoming of the barriers to profitability. This is especially the case inside the current historical crisis of capital where new barriers to accumulation have been reached. In order to set the processes for capital accumulation in-train once more, a new mass of surplus value needs to be released and there is an increasingly desperate search for new markets. Much of the current discussion about MOOCs and the relationships between formal and informal educational providers are enclosed by the reality of overcoming disruptions to established, systemic patterns of accumulation and profitability. These disruptions are forcing the value incorporated inside previously socialised spaces like higher education into the open, where it can be re-enclosed and commodified.

Thus, in order to generate a meaningful response to the pleas of Bowles and Kernohan for pushing back against the drive for efficiency and for generating alternatives, it is no use framing those alternatives inside-and-against a view of the elite University vs allegedly disruptive, on-line innovations. As Dumenil and Levy, quoted in Basu and Vasudevan, note the point is to understand the place of public higher education inside the systemic realities of capitalism’s drive to re-establish profitability and accumulation using a variety of mechanisms, like indentured study, defining universities as business, outsourcing, efficiency dividends, MOOCs etc.:

the rate of expansion of a capitalist economy is limited by the general rate of profit that it can generate. The intuition is straightforward. Expansion of a capitalist economy is the accumulation of capital; accumulation, in its turn, rests on capitalizing surplus value, i.e., generating and realizing surplus value. Since profit is a form of expression of surplus value, it follows that the rate of profit governs the rate of expansion of the system. On the demand side it has an impact on the inducement to investment; on the supply side, it determines the financing of investment. There is also in addition a link between profitability and stability.

In dishing the Keynesian analysis of austerity and spending Roberts has some salient context for this discussion. He argues that the key in responding to the current crisis of capitalism is to understand the relationships between: government activity; socialisation in the form of spending on public works, education or health; and production/consumption processes that underpin profitability. Roberts states that spending

on education and health (human capital)… may help to raise the productivity of labour over time, but it won’t help profitability. If it goes mainly into government investment in infrastructure, it may boost profitability for those capitalist sectors getting the contracts, but if it is paid for by higher taxes on profits, there is no gain overall. And even if it is financed by taxes on wages or cuts in other spending it will only raise overall profitability if it goes into sectors with a lower ratio of capital to labour.

In terms of the UK economy he notes that “Productivity in productive sectors of the economy is stagnant and investment has collapsed. Holders of capital are accumulating cash, sending it abroad or buying financial assets.” Those financial assets include student debts and institutional bond issues, and he might also add that Capital is looking at ways of cracking open the value contained in public education through labour arbitrage, outsourcing and privatisation, for private accumulation.

On disruption: The disruptive nature of MOOCs or whatever on-line innovation has to be seen inside-and-against the current crisis of capitalism, and the ways in which they exemplify the tensions between the social character of production and the private character of appropriation inside the system. As highlighted by Marx in the Grundrisse, these innovations are ways in which capital restructures production to overcome the barriers imposed by the working class:

[Capital] by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier… the creation of the physical conditions of exchange – of the means of communication and transport – the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it. [pp. 524-5]

Thus, the current discussion about MOOCs or the meaning of higher education or the idea of the University or whatever needs to be framed inside-and-against higher education as a revolutionary means for releasing surplus value and for restoring profitability to the broader system, by overcoming barriers to production and consumption. As Marx and Engels note in the Communist Manifesto, this demands revolutionary practice by the bourgeoisie as a global hegemon.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. … Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind. The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. [p. 13.]

It is, therefore, critical that we see the debate about higher education, efficiency drives, disruptive innovations or whatever, in terms of systemic profitability. As Roberts notes:

A Marxist analysis, in my opinion, recognises that the underlying cause of the crisis in the first place is to be found in the failure of capitalist production to generate enough profit. Then, until capitalism can destroy enough old or “dead” capital (employees, old technology and unprofitable weaker capitalist enterprises) to restore profitability and start the whole thing again, it will languish. In this long depression I reckon this may well require another big slump.

On socialised alternatives: Roberts believes that the alternative is “to end the capitalist mode of production and replace it with democratically controlled, planned social production.” Thus, in responding to Bowles and Kernohan it is no use decrying the subsumption of disruptive innovation inside institutional realities. This is simply a form of false consciousness. At issue are the ways in which knowledge and forms of knowing that are created inside the University, MOOC, disruptive-wherever can be liberated or repatriated for global knowing, and against enclosure and commodification. What forms of knowledge, what skills and practices, what ways of knowing, what mechanisms for analysing global problems, can be emancipated and used to define alternative, socialised value forms? To where can they be liberated or repatriated so that they can be used against-and-beyond their private accumulation for profit? How and where do we ignite critical, political pedagogic practices that enable the democratic production and consumption of knowledge and knowing? These are the questions that ought to frame the idea of (disruptions to) higher education, and its contributions to our collective responses to global crises.


Against a defensive lamentation for the University

I

In a recent critique of workfare, Aaron Peters connects its objective reality to the response of lamentation given by the TUC and the organised left. This response represents a refusal to use the very means by which capital is restructuring social production as a weapon against it. It represents a refusal by the left to do more than defend capitalist work or fight for less damaging working conditions. It represents the inability of the left to resist and push-back against capitalist work, in order to recover and reimagine the social content of labour. The response has been one of protecting rights related to work; not of defining rights beyond work. For Peters, this is also true of those more energetic struggles that are beyond marches for the alternative or for a future that works. Thus, the activism of the student movement, the pensions campaign and anti-Workfare campaigners has “undoubtedly been embedded within a defensive approach that has come to characterize anti-austerity struggles throughout the OECD.” This focuses upon minimising harm [fees], revealing perceived bad behaviour [tax avoidance], and legitimising certain forms of protest [occupation].

Critically, Peters then asks the following.

Responses such as the 2010 student movement and the backlash against workfare should have been fully expected. As welfare states and labour markets throughout the OECD are restructured over coming decade(s) in response to the Long Recession, defensive claims, objectives and strategies will almost inevitably be the basis from which action, successful or otherwise, will be catalysed. Is it sufficient to merely attempt to defend those post-war gains that have already been steadily eroded for three decades?

Is all we can hope for defence? Is all that we can legitimise, including higher education, defined by increasingly precarious capitalist work? Martin McQuillan enables us to connect this defensive pattern of behaviour to the ways in which students have been increasingly victimised by the State if they behave against a pre-defined role as indentured consumers of an education market. In commenting on the prosecution of students involved in protests, McQuillan notes:

what is clear from these trials, of which Meadows and King were the last to come to court, is that there has been a systematic attempt to prosecute young people with no criminal records, under the serious charge of violent disorder (carrying a sentence of up to five years) in the heightened venue of Crown courts, and at great expense, despite a lack of supporting evidence or likelihood of conviction. Excessive sentences have been dealt out for minor offences and the lives of many have been made miserable or even ruined by this pattern of victimisation. This has been done to send a message to the students of Britain not to protest against the new fees regime or any other related issue of intergenerational inequality.

Here defensive behaviours become normalised, because if you are to be disciplined by the State when you protest the increase in fees, the removal of Educational Maintenance Allowance, or the outsourcing of University services, from where will you find the courage to question the shackling of education inside neoliberal political structures? From where will you find the courage to develop and argue for alternatives? From where will you find the courage to debate alternatives that are against transnational capital’s hegemony over our existence?

II

Against this lack of agency, Peters then reminds us to imagine “What can be done, when nothing can be done?” He situates any analysis of this question against lamentation and despair and argues that we need to see policy and practice inside the everyday, material and ideological realities of austerity politics.

Workfare is a policy tool to recompose the UK labour market. However it is also clear that within workfare programs there is a kernel of truth which is neglected within the analysis of social democrats and those on the centre-left. It is unequivocally motivated by political spite and class hostility. More importantly however we must also understand it as a policy response to changed conditions of production (which themselves are a response to the as yet unsolved and merely deferred crisis of the mid-1970s) which will not disappear and will only continue to intensify.

We might substitute [the student fee regime] or [the marketization of higher education] for [workfare], and Peters is right in identifying that this is a process of restructuring for the accumulation of wealth will only continue to intensify. This is why purely defensive operations, carried out inside an increasingly globalised terrain, will continue to fail.

For McQuillan this means that academics need to find the courage to act in solidarity with young people because the history of higher education offers a critique of spaces for dissent, refusal and pushing back. The history of higher education offers-up a deeply politicised terrain inside-and-against which social change can be critiqued and alternatives developed. The immanence of marketization means that agency is co-opted inside new forms of social production and consumption, and subsumes the material identities of both the student and the academic inside the processes that reproduce historically-situated, capitalist inequality. For McQuillan, there are deep interconnections of historical agency, transformative values and solidarity, which need to be remembered by those who work inside the University.

the history of student protest has been overwhelmingly one of support for progressive causes: opposition to the Vietnam War and the campus shutdowns following the shooting of Kent State University students by the Ohio National Guard in May 1970; the French General Strike of May 1968; the Athens Polytechnic protest in 1973 that helped bring down Greece’s military junta; the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989; and the student marches against the Iranian regime in 1999 and 2009. In recent years, students in Chile and Quebec have successfully opposed government reforms of higher education as part of a wider set of concerns about inequality.

Historically, students have been agents of political change, placing the transformative educational values of the university at the heart of global society and culture. When students are told to think of themselves as consumers, they are being asked to exchange their political agency for acquiescence in a system that perpetuates inequality. We speak blithely of “student choice”, “student satisfaction” and the “student experience” in a rush to engineer a value-for-money relationship with fee-paying customers. When this generation of young people expresses dissatisfaction with that experience as its only choice, it is subject to the full weight of the law.

Universities wish away dissent, questioning and criticism at their peril. Without them, universities would merely be adjuncts to the corporate global economy: and no professor wants to be an adjunct. To remain silent about miscarriages of justice in the sentencing of student protesters would be a betrayal of this present generation, but so would an insistence on their systemic designation as indebted, passive consumers of educational products. As long as we have social inequality, it will be in the purview of young people to protest against it; as long as we have inequality, universities will be necessary agents for social change. Student protest has a future: the values that inform it are the values of the university per se. Those responsible for our universities should not be first in line in attempts to silence it.

Peters forces us to relocate this image of the student/academic/State relationship against the realities of capitalist work as they are shaped by changes to the organic composition of capital. These changes are created through automation, the network, precarious, deskilled and free labour, cybernetics, entrepreneurialism, securitisation and so on, and are enforced by the State through its militarisation. Thus, Peters argues:

If the input of human labour is increasingly insignificant in the production and distribution of goods and services – something with which I entirely concur – and wages represent increasingly smaller amounts of capital allocation within production then who precisely is going to buy these products and with what wages? How will people subsist under capitalism without jobs? It is this issue that is perhaps most elided by the entire political class – the Labour Party and the TUC as much their supposed ideological counterpoints the Conservative Party and the CBI. The future must *work* and by default therefore its moral invocations must stem from the dignity of labour.

A point I take from this is that austerity means that counter-hegemonies cannot be found inside traditional political structures that have been sustained through the dynamics of capitalism. Peters highlights the importance of recognising and outing the power of specific historical moments, and uses the example of workfare as the moment to argue for the possibility of a guaranteed social wage and the potential decoupling of the wage from work, in order to develop mechanisms for the transformation of society. This is not about saving capitalism. It is not about saving the TUC. It is not about the dignity of capitalist work or full employment.

III

It is also not about defending the University. The focus on specific historical moments in which the production process is restructured, in order that the material realities of the accumulation process can be laid bare, ought to force academics to re-evaluate their roles in the redefinition of the University and of higher education. Yet this is not what is revealed inside organisations like the Campaign for the Defence of the British University. The CDBU risks fetishizing the University, in its argument that:

Higher Education in the UK is experiencing a raft of reforms that are fundamentally reshaping what universities are, how they are governed and their ability to undertake their core task: the production of knowledge in all its guises. CDBU holds that these reforms are premised on two linked shifts associated with the marketization of higher education:

§  the instrumentalisation of knowledge and its production (though mechanisms that seek to determine what the outcome of research will be)

§  the privatisation of public educational assets (eg. in which costs and benefits of education accrue to the individual who can afford it rather than to the whole community)

This amounts to what might be thought of as an enclosure of the epistemic commons. The CDBU firmly believes that the work undertaken in higher education institutions should be connected to other sectors of the economy. But the processes that underpin all education and knowledge are necessarily unpredictable and open-ended. So the universities that support those processes must be maintained as autonomous institutions to protect them.

Inside the CBDU’s aims for rarefied and protected intellectual activity, for protected agency that stands against the hegemonic realities of transnational capital that is restructuring the spaces that exist for that agency, and for the subsumption of intellectual activity inside precarious and entrepreneurial work, lamentation is palpable. There is no recognition that so much groundwork has been laid inside student occupations, the occupy movement, the global protests against austerity, and in alternative educational spaces like the Social Science Centre. The CDBU reads like it only ever wishes to be inside, and that being against-and-beyond the University as it is co-opted for the process of accumulation, is impossible. Against this stands the lack of any political economic critique and any way of reinterpreting the objective realities of austerity as it is being played out inside-and-against the very idea of the University. In particular, the CDBU’s cry that we should work

To ensure that British universities continue to transmit and reinterpret the world’s cultural and intellectual inheritance, to encourage international exchange and to engage in the independent thought and criticism necessary for the flourishing of any democratic society

demonstrates the epistemological limits of an association that wishes to defend, and has no mechanisms for pushing-back. There is only the University for hegemony here; there is no scope for a counter-hegemonic project that might take marketization and use it against the politics of austerity that only promise dehumanised, capitalist work.

IV

I am reminded that it is the globalisation of the struggle that matters now. Not on the canvass of a defensive, elegiac, educational lamentation for a paradise lost, but based on the historical, objective realities through which transnational finance capital is restructuring production through policy and technological practice. This means standing against the defence of the University as an organisation that is reinscribed inside those processes for accumulation, so that we can move beyond those dynamics. The historical student movements that McQuillan writes about, and the current protests including that at Sussex, offer us a perspective that is beyond defense and which might enable us to define meaningful alternatives that work for the transformation of society.

As I write elsewhere:

The challenge is to take these social struggles that exist inside-and-against the University and infuse them politically, using globalised technologies, in order to open-up a counter-hegemonic space or global commons. It is only through the politicising of academic (student/teacher) labour through solidarity actions that truly transformational change that addresses social need and marginalisation beyond the market can be realised. Universities are critical sites in the globalisation of this struggle, as is the student/teacher as producer/consumer of material relations that are beyond the subjective. It is through the technological mobilisation of these social forces that the legitimacy of the transnational capitalist class might be challenged, in order that global production might be redirected sustainably for the majority of the world’s population that are… impoverished and pauperised, as opposed to being for the minority of high-income, high-status groups in the global North. This means developing models that replace the restructuring and reorganisation of global society for capital accumulation, including the realisation of pedagogic models and ideas of public education that maintain (counter-)hegemony.


Education and enclosure: the lessons of historical agency

Yesterday, Brian Lamb tweeted that:

“I inexplicably find debates on CC-NC fascinating now… But I need a clearer sense on what “enclosure” means in practice, not just theory.”

The educational technology field is rife with emergent discussions of the connections between the idea of the Commons and that of enclosure, and the place of commodities or resources inside them. Thus, we see it in responses to the debates on MOOCs and open badges, in the alleged power of networks and network governance, in deterministic work that alleges the emancipatory potential of technology in-and-beyond the classroom, and in the relationships between habitus and hegemony that are revealed in work on the nature of soft/hard power and social media. The ideas of enclosure and Commons in educational discourse tend to reveal a set of deeper, more ideological positions that pivot around either emancipation, consent and freedom as witnessed in the open nature of the Commons, or the coercive, commercially-focused and closed-off world of enclosed, proprietary software and environments. This is a deeply political terrain.

I have previously written about the metaphor of the Commons and its relationship to enclosure as it is revealed through educational technology, taking on-board Nick Dyer-Witheford’s communist critique of the crisis of capital being reinforced through ‘a circulation of the Commons’ in which mass intellectuality or alternative forms of value can be developed and exchanged against the profit motive. Here the ideas of free and commoditisation are important. However, I have also written about the impact of such circulations and value-forms on individuals, in particular using the visitor/resident model as a pivot for an understanding of the complex relationships between the individual, specific (virtual/real) space, and technology. The interplay between the individual and the spaces in which she exists reflects the dominant forms/structures of the social relationships of the time. I picked this up in reflecting on the realities of eighteenth-century political history and how they might help us to understand the idea of a technological Commons.  In addressing the “practice” of actually existing enclosure in eighteenth-century politics, I wanted to address three questions that seem pertinent to education and technology.

  1. Against the neoliberal constraint on what can legitimately be fought for, how do we tell stories that reclaim our common history and our social relationships? How do we protect the richness of the technological ecosystems that help us to do this work?
  2. In the rush for technology-as-progress, can we identify how that progress is shaped in our stories of struggle? How do we recognise struggle in our use of technology?
  3. How do we struggle-in-common against the enclosure of our networked public spaces? How do we develop a politics of digital literacy? How do we develop a political digital literacy?

This idea of stories of struggles over the form and content of our social relationships is then important both historically and in terms of understanding how and why technology in education is co-opted. In this I was and still am attempting to reconnect my earliest research on property, the common and political power in Augustan Yorkshire, electoral mechanics, and profiling actual voters, to the idea of the Commons and enclosure in education. What do the actual historical struggles over the Commons and enclosure tell us about how we might view autonomy and agency in the present? Revisiting these historical struggles helps me to identify struggles-in-common over access to resources, be that physical land/cultural rights or immaterial spaces/rights held privately or in common.

In addressing Brian’s point about the actual practices and structures that are related to resources, the first question I posed above made me think less about enclosure and more about the complexities of individual agency and the structures that bind/coerce it or that enable it through consent. In terms of the use of technology in education I am forced to consider how we might uncover: what agency might actually confer on an individual or association or network; the structures of social relationships or the rules that bind individuals as agents; and the co-option or subversion of available techniques and technologies. By contrasting the structural critiques of enclosure/Commons with the realities of actually existing political action, it might be able to work through what it means to apply a CC-NC license, or to engage in a MOOC, or to create an open badge, or to scale-up learning analytics, or to build a personal learning network, or whatever. The purpose of this is to signal some mechanisms through which those engaged in curriculum innovation or educational technology might begin to re-frame how they might work practically with the ideas of enclosure/Commons, as they interact with the reality of personal and political agency, using one historical interpretation as a means.

So I just want to make five points about understanding historical practices as they actually existed, in relation to individual agency inside the structures of the Commons/enclosures. N.B. a useful historical starting point is E.P. Thompson’s Customs in Common, and Neeson’s excellent book on Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820.

FIRST: property and power in the real/virtual spaces inside which we actually operate.

Inside early modern capitalism landholding gave power, just as it does under late-modern capitalism. In the eighteenth century it was a mark of status, and the right to vote was generally based on land-as-property. The over-riding view of those men who voted for county or shire MPs has been that they voted by right of forty shillings worth of land held in fee simple, after taxes and local charges were accounted for, but that leases for lives, rent-charges, mortgages and annuities, and certain offices like clerical benefices were also a means of enfranchisement. These men were viewed as the bedrock of the county community precisely because of the eighteenth-century elevation of property to a sublime position within society. A share in the land of the county would show a higher political consciousness and entail a recognition of the importance of property and liberty. However, recent investigations have shown that one cannot make assumptions about who the voters were, or the nature of their right to vote. For a fuller understanding of the basis of political action in the early eighteenth century, there is a need to reconstruct the lives of individuals and communities. One might say the same about networks, the Commons and enclosure in educational spaces. 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 in education. What presuppositions about property and liberty are folded into our assumptions about MOOCs, networked Commons or proprietary software?

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. In analysing historical behaviours, there is a need to implement methodologies that integrate multiple, nominal data-sources, so that the relationships between the static and mobile members of a population can be addressed. 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. The same may be true of educational networks or Commons or enclosures, and the spaces from which mass intellectuality might emerge. The complexities of landholding and mobility highlight the parameters of our knowing about power and social capital. The more one knows and comes to understand about individuals in the past, the less confidence one can have in generalisations based upon aggregate analyses of behaviour. Just because both John and Jane Doe act in a specific way, does not mean that their underlying motivations and agency are the same. Context-situated approaches indicate the worth of longitudinal studies, which highlight the complexities of peoples’ lives and how we might take a more holistic approach to understanding behaviours that are more nuanced.

THIRD: the complexity of space and time, and the depth of social relationships.

Divergent socio-economic influences were important in analysing political action in the eighteenth century because an individual voter might own freehold land against which he voted, but he might also be a tenant of an individual or a manorial court, or a local corporation. Eighteenth century tenures were often mixed and taken up from several sources, usually in order to create a larger, more unified block of land that itself gave a large measure of political autonomy. How individuals operated in specific spaces, and then accrued their social/economic capital into a measure of political power was/is subject to no simple, deterministic rules about the Commons or networks. The primary sources for understanding eighteenth century voting behaviour were poll books or canvass sources that could be linked. However, these still remain relatively skeletal, containing few nominal data. Only by locating specific voters in time and space can the electoral historian move beyond essentially unhelpful interpretations based on aggregate analyses. This second process addresses these issues by forging a methodology which can help examine politics at a local level. The historian needs to be able to recreate particular communities, to divine the types of forces which were impacting upon the electorate. Many voters were ductile and dependent, factors brought into sharper focus by the politics of their locale. However, the fact that such distinct contexts existed inside regions indicates the complexity of pressures which impacted upon the electorate. In many areas local elites were not a separate group, they were tied into a deeper nexus of community obligation. The key to our understanding of the relationships between structural forms and individuals in any context lies in reconstructing the depth of such ties.

FOURTH: the relationships between Common/enclosed space and time.

The relationships between common land, which was managed under specific rules for specific communities and the rights over which were defended earnestly, and between freehold land, or leasehold land that was rented, were complex. This also then suggests that 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. Historically, the proximity of freehold land to major townships stimulated a demand for such land in those areas, as a sink for capital. Whether the rents and revenue produced by landownership helped to alleviate the problems of trade/economic fluctuations is unclear. However, for instance in the textile towns of the West Riding of Yorkshire, many clothiers saw the ownership of freehold land as important, and this indicates that these were independent men of relatively substantial means. One might ask then 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 (thinking of CC-NC) might become?

FIFTH: on power and autonomy.

Many of the voters in Hanoverian elections either owned, rented, and/or held-in-common substantial assemblages of land. Moreover, if any voters rented they were often wealthy and influential enough to act independently of their landlord. Very few men were compelled to poll as their landlords did. That so many owned their land, and that landownership was so fractured, made political control awkward. It simply was not possible for local landowners to brow-beat such men to the polls. This is not to say that some voters were not compliant out of ideological or socio-economic need. There is also a point to be made about the fact that politics was nothing without a clash of interests from those with status over political capital. However, the relationship between the politicians and a large subset of the electorate was fragile and conditional. Once the politicians drew the battle lines they were involved in a wider nexus of responsibilities. With this in mind it is hardly surprising that politicians had to expend so much energy and money to gain an election. A lack of awareness about the rights of the electors and local customs could hamstring a campaign just as it can our view of them. It was these local socio-economic and socio-cultural factors that emancipated individual voting communities, and which moderated the voters’ choices at the polls. 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.

Brian’s comment that “I inexplicably find debates on CC-NC fascinating now… But I need a clearer sense on what “enclosure” means in practice, not just theory”, is important then for two reasons. First, the content of our educational practices (CC-NC or whatever) reveals the complex structures of coercion and consent inside which we ask our students and staff to operate. Second, understanding other stories of coercion and consent, located inside-and-against the dichotomy of Commons/enclosure might offer us alternative ways to crack and push-back against the increasing privatisation of education.


some questions on academic identity and the crisis

An informal reading group met last night to discuss Niall Ferguson’s Reith Lectures. The general consensus was that the lectures represent a crisis of hegemonic neoliberalism, with a picture being created of the structures of political and civil society being re-geared for the maintenance of established power relations that are fashioned inside capital. Inside this picture there is no possibility to see beyond determinist ends as Ferguson presents assertions as fact in a rhetorical blaze.

However, the arrow of the evening pointed towards the idea of academic labour in the current crisis, and in particular towards the following questions.

  1. What is the role of the academic in a world that is being refashioned by rent-seeking elites who are energising what Žižek has described as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”: ecological distress (impending ecological catastrophes); economic distress (the global financial meltdown); biological distress (the biogenetic revolution and its impact on human identity); and social distress (social divisions leading to the explosion of protest and revolutions worldwide).
  2. What is the role of the academic in the face of issues of intergenerational justice, or the compact between present and future? These are not simply confined to debts securitised against futures as yet unknown or unborn, in order to pay down our present economic crisis. They are also issues of future access to liquid fuel resources upon which economic growth is predicated and the ability to emit carbon without being poisoned by past emissions. Intergenerational justice is a function of the social pressures that might be brought to bear upon the economic/environmental injustices bequeathed upon our children through greed.
  3. What is the role of the academic in contesting a world that produces a semi-enslaved labour force, through precarity, indentured wage labour, the threat of unemployment, technological surveillance, strike-breaking or the politics of austerity? In the face of the global collapse in real wages and the proportion of global wealth owned by labour, as opposed to capital, what is the purpose of a higher education framed by employability?
  4. What is the role of the academic in the face of securitised socio-economic institutions, and the imperative to maintain the increase in the rate of profit, which then underpins structural readjustment policies? How might the academic act against capital’s demand for reduced circulation time in the generation and exchange of securitised commodities, based in-part on technological innovation and in-part on the collapse of risk inside those securitised commodities?
  5. What is the role of the academic in the face of the hegemonic power of undemocratic, transnational activist networks of finance capital, think tanks, politicians etc.? What is the role of the academic in making a case for reality against theses for finance capital, supported by groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, where the means of production and forces of production are outsourced in order to maximise the rate of profit and value extraction from labour?
  6. What is the role of the academic in the face of the hidden fist of the State that protects the hidden hand of the market? Friedman argues that: “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.”
  7. What is the role of the academic in the face of growth that is increasingly being re-spun from credit, witnessed in QE3, and which is unsustainable and lethal to the needs of labour?
  8. What is the role of the academic in the face of conservative politicians who would define the law in the name of private property, rather than human rights? How do academics act against this anti-democracy that seeks a context for property rights that underpins unfettered competition, securitisation and marketisation?
  9. What is the role of the academic where the threat of national defaults in Spain and Greece are presented as a threat to global order? How do academics engage with the mechanics of control imposed by a transnational troika, but which might in-turn be an emancipatory moment for social movements inside those states? How do academics assess the social movements that are generated from protest against austerity, to present democratic alternatives and spaces for manoeuvre? Where are the spaces inside higher education for understanding and engaging with social forces that have historically been the catalyst for democratic change, rather than a supposedly benign bourgeoisie? How might students be involved in this process?
  10. What is the role of the academic in arguing for a resilient education that is diverse, modular and connected into feedback mechanisms? How does this enable universities to become sites where students come to understand the objective conditions that exist inside capitalism? How does this enable students to overcome the truisms that surround the idea of student-as-consumer, in which the driver is developing the individuated skills of the entrepreneur? The risk in the separation and individuation of students-as-entrepreneurs is that the responsibility for failure is handed to the individual rather than being collectively/socially negotiated and owned.

Networks, the rate of profit and institutionalising MOOCs

I

In an excellent article on Technology, Distribution and the Rate of Profit in the US Economy: Understanding the Current Crisis, Basu and Vasudevan scope the connections between falling capital productivity, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and technological innovation. Specifically they argue that the period preceding the current financial crisis in 2008 witnessed a significant and sharp fall in capital productivity and hence in profitability, and that this counteracted the rises that were accrued from the widespread implementation of information technology, techniques of new managerialism and the tendency towards financialisation in the previous three decades.

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. I am trying to develop the argument that we need to examine educational innovations like open educational resources, MOOCs, bring your own device, personal learning networks etc. 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; and the subsumption of networks and network theory to the neoliberal project of accumulation and profitability.

This is an on-going discussion and this post is a starting point for some ideas that will develop over time, in particular in trying to understand how technologically-mediated innovations might be analysed alongside critical pedagogy, in order to demonstrate alternative positions.

II

Historically technological innovation has been seen as a response to economic stagnation or to crisis, not simply to act as a brake on wages but also to renew capital productivity. However, for the period immediately prior to the financial crisis of 2008 this does not appear to have been the case. Basu and Vasudevan argue:

The investment-seeking surplus generated by the enormous and growing productivity of the system is increasingly unable to find sufficient new profitable investment outlets [my emphasis]. Monopoly capitalism faces a tendency toward stagnation as a consequence of the gap between the growing economic surplus and existing outlets for profitable investment. There is a continual need to find new ways to profitably invest its surplus and new sources of demand. But rather than invest in socially useful projects that would benefit the vast majority, capital has constructed a financialized “casino”. Capitalism in its monopoly-finance capital phase becomes increasingly reliant on the ballooning of the credit-debt system in order to escape the worst aspects of stagnation.

This then underpins a structural weakness at the heart of the global system of capitalism, which has seen a tendency to overproduction and a decline in the return on capital investment in manufacturing and productive sectors of the economy. This in-turn has underpinned both an attrition of real wages since the 1970s and the flight into precarious and immaterial labour and the valorisation of virtual or cognitive labour, alongside the ideas that promote creativity and enterprise as levers of economic renewal. Historically this has also witnessed debt-driven investment in education, through: a turn to vehicles like increasing student fees and the bond markets; opening-up the sector to marketised solutions, outsourcing and hosted services, shared services, and human capital controls (in student numbers, in legitimating certain groups of foreign students, in restructuring labour etc.); and, a focus on shackling the subjectivity of labour to governmentality through performance measurement and surveillance. Thus, higher education continues to witness the implementation of technologies for value extraction, command and coercion.

In this process, technologies for sharing, for service-driven innovations, for ubiquitous computing, for personalisation etc. are seen to be strategically critical. This reflects Marx’s emergent mature work, in which technological innovation is linked to capital accumulation and increasing profitability. Developing a technological lead drives competition between businesses or between different capitals, and this drives the production/consumption cycle and hence profitability. Competition compels other capitalists towards technological innovation and increasing capital intensity, in order both to extract a larger surplus from their own labour-force, and to discipline that labour-force under the threat of restructuring or unemployment. This is an on-going pattern of technological change driven by a need to extract surplus value and decrease dependency on variable labour costs.

For Basu and Vasudevan, the period leading up to 2008 was critical in recalibrating the economies of the global north around the widespread adoption of technologies and new managerialism. They argue that

The pervasive adoption and growth of information technology would have almost certainly played an important role in shaping the particular evolution in the nineties when capital productivity showed an upward trend. New forms of managerial control and organization, including just-in-time and lean production systems have been deployed to enforce increases in labor productivity since the 1980s. The phenomena of “speed-up‟ and stretching of work has enabled the extraction of larger productivity gains per worker hour as evidenced the faster growth of labor productivity after 1982. People have been working harder and faster. Information technology has facilitated the process. It enables greater surveillance and control of the worker, and also rationalization of production to “computerize” and automate certain tasks.

Critically the fall in cost of hardware and software infrastructure meant that productivity gains were achieved with smaller increases in capital outlay. In terms of UK HE, a large part of the initial development costs for innovation and development in educational technologies was state-subsidised through project-funding, transformation programmes, and investments in national infrastructure. This lowered the cost of capital investment for individual universities or colleges as competing capitals. One result is that labour-productivity has been increased without necessitating increasing capital intensity, and thinking about the sector as a whole, rather than individual universities as businesses, this has also been catalysed by globalisation and outsourcing services that are of low value and jobs that are of low surplus value extraction.

The twin problems for capital of this approach are of declining rates of accumulation, as the increase in the organic composition of capital tends to diminish the rate of profit where there are fewer employees to exploit and more technology or techniques to manage, and a fall in local capital intensity or productivity through what Marx called moral depreciation. 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.

As a result, the drive under the treadmill logic of competition becomes to deliver constant innovation across a whole socio-technical system, in order to maintain or increase the rate of extraction of relative surplus value, and to tear down the barriers of under-consumption. This implication is crucial inside a higher education sector that is being recalibrated for enterprise inside a competitive system, and where technological innovation is perceived to drive profitability.

Historically, we have witnessed a technological recalibration of the higher education sector under the drive for productivity and efficiency, and in the name of an enhanced student experience that is managed through techniques like the national student survey. The subsumption of universities-as-businesses, or as competing capitals, further amplifies this process. However, it also disciplines the investment decisions of those individual businesses, which are no longer underwritten by the State as a backer of last resort, and this threatens a new vulnerability that is manifested in capacity utilisation, a squeeze on production/product prices, and the need to maintain profitability. The growth of financialisation in the sector, in order to protect investments, might temporarily alleviate any weakness of demand for the products of the university. However, in the medium-term, individual universities are constrained by the structural weaknesses of the global economy that are loaded towards financialisation and the ongoing process of deleveraging private debt as public liabilities, the need to become profitable in a market, and new forms of competition from private providers. These new forms of competition might be rival organisations with degree-awarding powers, or they might be partnerships of accrediting organisations operating through MOOCs, or they might be hedge funds providing venture capital for technologically-driven innovations.

III

In their paper Why does profitability matter? Duménil and Lévy argue that profitability and stability are linked, and that the rate of expansion of a capitalist economy is underpinned by the general rate of profit that can be generated, the capital that can be accumulated is then re-invested for further surplus value extraction and profitability. This underpins investment decisions and technological innovation. Thus, as Basu and Vasudevan note:

It is equally important to untangle the drivers of profitability, to decompose the rate of profit into its underlying determinants. The trends in labor productivity, capital productivity, and profit share are important in unraveling the role of technology and distribution in determining the trajectory of the profit rate.

In untangling these drivers in the global economy, the role of networks and networked learning has been emphasised as a driver for economic renewal and growth. Jonathan Davies has written extensively, critiquing network governance, and has pointed out that the idea of the ‘network society’ is complex and contested, and that it rests on some simple claims.

  1. That modern capitalist society is too complex, fragmented and disordered for effective command management.
  2. That universal education enables us to challenge power, undermining our traditional commitments to family, faith, flag and fraternity.
  3. That the universal welfare state and rising prosperity liberate us from narrow and selfish economic concerns, creating the conditions for a more sociable and trusting personality to emerge.
  4. That ubiquitous communications technology provides the infrastructure for clever, critically-minded, prosperous and sociable people from all walks of life to connect with one another in pursuit of their ever-changing projects and goals.

As Davies notes, these precepts form the building-blocks of ‘horizontalism’; the belief that we live in a world of networks, that networking is a good thing to do, and that we can only understand the world if we apply network-theoretical concepts.

In this view, not only does the network apply to government-citizen partnerships, knowledge transfer, community engagement and so on, but also to projects of opposition to governmental agendas like those related to austerity. Thus, opposition is often framed by the idea of the multitude as distributed, decentred, swarming sets of resistances that form flows or circuits against a capitalist project that is represented as an Empire of accumulation. Thus, whilst the network forms a space for accumulation and profitability, it is also a counter-hegemonic space designed for organising resistance, for developing solidarity through occupation, for developing militant responses to the creation of the edufactory, for general assemblies, or for the work of groups like Anonymous.

Yet as Davies argues, ‘network governance is part of the hegemonic strategy of neoliberalism – the visionary, utopian and profoundly flawed regulative ideal of late capitalism.’ Network governance in this view is a problem-solving strategy, designed to make the capitalist project function more smoothly, rather than emerging as a strategy designed to critique the power-relations that exist inside capitalism, in order to overthrow them. Thus, the network is directed towards functionalism, for unearthing practical solutions to practical problems, based on a normative bias towards trust-based relationships nurtured inside networks that are often technologically-mediated. Thus, connectionist [or cybernetic] capitalism is described in terms of autonomy, rhizomes, spontaneity, multi-tasking, conviviality, openness, availability, creativity, difference, informality, interpersonal connections and so on. This underpins the idea that postmodern capitalism is weightless or infinitively creative, diverse and immaterial.

Crucially, Davies asks questions related to the relationships between governance networks and network governance. The latter is an ideal-type that rests upon the post-structural claim that the network is proliferating in form and underpins our everyday activities, based on ethical virtues like trust and empowered reflexivity. Network governance is seen to be a rupture with the past. The idea of the governance network refers to recurring and/or institutionalised formal/informal resource exchanges between governmental/non-governmental actors. This is the space that claims a democratic, decentralised opportunity to deliver change and choice, masked as new public management. Thus, for Davies the central question becomes why governance networks do not live up to the promise of network governance, which is important in delivering for and in communities? Why do hierarchies and management for command proliferate and dominate?

In this argument the network is placed asymmetrically against the realities of hegemonic power that is catalysed and reproduced in the political and economic centralisation that is so characteristic of crisis-prone capitalist modernity. The reactions of central governments and finance capital to the post-2008 crisis bear witness to this process. For Davies then, the research evidence in the public policy, sociology and public administration spheres point to the fact that

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’.

Technologies are central in this clash, for whilst it is possible for some people to connect globally and ubiquitously, those same technologies form the medium of hierarchical power. The challenge then becomes to analyse how those technologies interact with the everyday reality of interpersonal connections, and to uncover the power relations that they embody. Critically this is a historical project, because network governance theory misreads past and present, ignores that networks are prone to resolving into hierarchies and incremental closure, that they reproduce and crystallise inequalities, and that distrust is common. In this way, the emergence of technologically-mediated network governance enables capital to develop and enculturate ideal neoliberal subjects.

Critical in this argument is coercion and coercive practices. For Gramsci, this rested upon the idea of the integral State, which is the product of the formal institutions of civil society and of political society. This formation underpins the creation and reproduction of instruments and artefacts of hegemony, like technologies and educational organisations, which themselves enable social resources to be harnessed in the name of accumulation and profitability. However, in order to maintain a hegemonic order that is always contested and resisted, instruments of coercion and consent are required. These instruments include techniques of surveillance and workplace monitoring or analytics, alongside pedagogies of debt and indenture, and state-backed violence against dissent. This latter point is critical because, as Davies notes, contracts have to be enforceable. Violence is integral to the commodity form and the realisation of exchange value. As a result, coercion is immanent and in dialectical relationship with consent in a continuum from direct repression to the governmental management of subjectivity.

This is the world that frames the network in education. This is the world that frames the use of technology inside education. Education is developed inside a world of hierarchy and the dialectical interplay of consent and coercion, where, as Perry Anderson noted, without state-enforced coercion and the threat of violence, ‘the system of cultural control would be instantly fragile, since the limits of possible action against it would disappear’. The network is conditional on the threat of disciplinary violence and the immanence of governmentality that, in turn, disciplines subjectivity. More brutally, for those who believe in the emancipatory potential of educational technology, and the power of connectivist networks, Friedman offers the timely rejoinder that:

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.

IV

I want then just to write a few words about the current fetish for MOOCs, in order to open-up an avenue of thinking about hegemony and hierarchy in higher education, and the possibilities for academic labour to utilise technology to critique responses to the current crisis of capitalism that is recalibrating the sector. In this project, it becomes important to highlight, as Stephen Ball and Jonathan Davies have, the importance of network analyses that focus upon the production, reproduction and contestation of power, and the processes through which alliances, like Ball’s neoliberal transnational activist networks, that emerge from shared ideologies and resource interdependencies further reinforce asymmetric power relations. For Davies, critique needs to unearth the relationships between consent and coercion, between power and command structures, between network-like institutions and more formalised, traditional institutions, in order that the claims that are made for networks as delivering new forms of sociability that transcend structures of power and domination can be better understood. There is hope that in this process of critique the power of academic labour to produce alternative value forms, and forms of social organisation and governance for higher education, might be offered up.

Networks are important in connecting people, ideas and materials that are revealed in the relationships between technology and formal/informal institutions, and which underpin the reproduction of capitalist social relations and the need to maintain the increase in the rate of profit. However, beyond organising resources, there is a disconnection between the hoped-for humane, trust-based ideals of networked learning and the hard realities of hierarchical power. This resolves itself inside procedural problem-solving that locates, for example, MOOCs within the everyday realities of capitalism, and which in turn hope to experience them as less coercive or institutionalised than traditional educational institutions, and capable of resolving the student/teacher as a subject. The theorising of MOOCs has to-date rested on this kind of problem-solving theory, essentially based on student/teacher autonomy and participation, rather than as a transformational critique of the structural inequalities realised inside capitalism, through which the realities of wage labour make such autonomy practically impossible.

Thus, much of the discourse around MOOCs focuses upon ideas of openness and monetary freedom, and the creeping institutionalisation of alternative forms of education. David Kernohan has written about networked learning communities in which ‘Some courses are open as in door. You can walk in, you can listen for free. Others are open as in heart. You become part of a community, you are accepted and nurtured.’ Chatti focuses upon the management of networked learning in order to leverage ‘knowledge worker performance and to cope with the constant change and critical challenges of the new knowledge era’ Graham Attwell has highlighted the increasing institutionalization and rental/profit-based creep in the MOOC debate. Cathy Gunn aligns her argument with this institutional co-option of MOOCs or open courses, and she believes that ‘change in current traditions of higher education for many institutions will most likely require disruptive innovations outside of the academy first and we can see the evidence of the first seeds of that through the open course movement.

The mechanisms by which capital adapts and colonises work that takes place at the margins and then subsumes it inside the processes of self-valorisation are not new. However, for MOOCs this reality is amplified by the reflections of the team of teachers and researchers associated with the MSc in E-learning programme at the University of Edinburgh who began the development of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for the Coursera platform.  They argued that:

while MOOCs and the open education movement generally may not achieve everything – the democratisation of education, or the freeing of the world’s knowledge – they can achieve something. They can open up good teaching and interesting curricula to new groups of learners; they can help draw students into higher education who might otherwise not have ventured there; they can engage unprecedented numbers; and they can be a vehicle to continue to push at our collective notions of what constitutes the educational project.

Critically, this focus is then on new markets and technological approaches to opening-up new domains for profit or rent, with a secondary gain that appears to be just beyond reach, namely democratisation. An interesting side-effect of this normalisation or institutionalisation of alleged innovations like Coursera is the recent concern over the weakness of peer-assessment inside the MOOC experience by Audrey Watters.

This educational commentary then tends not to reflect on or to develop critiques of the network inside education policy and practice, or on the power of networks to reinforce hierarchy and hegemonic power-relations. This depoliticisation and lack of a political economy of MOOCs or other educational technology innovation is emerges from George Siemens’ argument that

MOOCs, regardless of underlying ideology, are essentially a platform. Numerous opportunities exist for the development of an ecosystem for specialized functionality in the same way that Facebook, iTunes, and Twitter created an ecosystem for app innovation.

This dismisses the political processes and practices that run through MOOCs, and their users’ political positions, in order to claim a neutral ‘platform’ for innovation. Siemens identifies that MOOCs

are significant in that they are a large public experiment exploring the impact of the internet on education. Even if the current generation of MOOCs spectacularly crash and fade into oblivion, the legacy of top tier university research and growing public awareness of online learning will be dramatic.

However, this significance needs to be understood inside-and-against the logic of capital’s drive for innovation in the name of the rate of profit, and its tendency to subsume labour practices inside technologically-mediated forms of coercion, command and control. This is the space against which Siemens’ claim that ‘The value of MOOCs may not be the MOOCs themselves, but rather the plethora of new innovations and added services that are developed when MOOCs are treated as a platform’ needs to be analysed. It is the ways in which MOOCs and the services, analytics, content, affects, relationships, immateriality etc. that are derived from them are then valorised that might offer a glimpse of how the neoliberal educational project is being defined and how it might be resisted and undone.

How those “services” are reclaimed in order to reproduce the structural and systemic inequalities of capitalism might also form a central strand in the development of a political economy of educational technology. This is crucial because it is about the on-going circulation and exchange of commodities inside the social factory as a central space for the production and consumption of cultural artefacts. This is central to the practices of MOOCs, for as the Change MOOC notes:

When a connectivist course is working really well, we see this greate cycle of content and creativity begin to feed on itself, people in the course reading, collecting, creating and sharing. It’s a wonderful experience you won’t want to stop when the course is done [sic.].

At issue then is how to connect the participative nature of pedagogic or educational ideas like MOOCs and the on-going aspiration for educational technology to become transformative, to the dialectical interplay between networks and hierarchies as they are resolved inside the hegemonic realities of capitalism. How might such an analysis enable alternative political projects to emerge that challenge orthodoxy and promise more than simply lifelong learning or work-based learning or learning for enterprise or learning for employability or education for growth? An approach might emerge from a historical and comparative analysis of radical education projects like the Social Science Centre that are geographically and politically grounded in a different set of spaces from network/task/informational-centric innovations like MOOCs.

A different approach might also be to align explicitly the tenets and precepts of critical pedagogy as a struggle for subjectivity, as an act of protest and resistance to dominant forms of educational structure (including MOOCs) that is designed as emancipatory practice, with the opportunities opened-up by technology. This demands that educators and technologists inside-and-beyond the university are less defensive about their work and their practices and develop alternative forms as overtly political projects. For as Amsler notes:

Any education that seeks to demystify popular ideologies; expose the subtle ways that power works through language, bodies, and representations; facilitate the imagination of radically different modes of life; and produce knowledge to orient political action represents, in various forms, a broad faith within critical pedagogical politics that there is something inherently transformative about criticality. And it is the possibility to practice such forms of education, which is, in the ascendance of the uncompromising force of market logics throughout public life, being contracted, cramped, enclosed, or foreclosed. Indeed, the need for the critical attitude has become urgent in the face of declining levels of popular support for nonutilitarian education, and a wider tolerance for complexity and otherness within the public sphere is on the decline. The overarching mood in education, including in universities, is therefore one of crisis; the broad response, one of defence.

It is through the critique of normative positions, including network governance, in response to the crisis of capitalism and the restructuring of education as a neoliberal subjectivity, that new subjectivities might emerge. The landscape for this is deeply historical and needs further political economic analysis. Whilst some emergent analysis has been attempted of innovations like MOOCs, in terms of hybrid pedagogies, the current crisis in the forms and management of the University in the global north would benefit from a deeper understanding of how educational technology and innovations are co-opted for the valorisation of capital. We might then be able to develop spaces that are networked, in which we can ask how academic labour might be reclaimed. This requires an engagement with critical pedagogy that moves higher education beyond simply addressing the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.


Educational technology and the war on public education

I’m presenting at the University of Lincoln’s Centre for Educational Research and Development conference on Thursday June 7. I’ll be speaking about Educational technology and the war on public education. My slides are on my slideshare. There is a fuller blog post on the war on public education is here and on militarisation is here. Part of the argument about alienation/commodification is made in this paper published in triple-C.

I will ask these questions.

  1. How do technologies contribute to the alienation of academics from their labour inside the university?
  2. What might be learned from occupations/work-ins in other geographies or at other times or in other sectors or under other capitals? How did techniques or technologies affect those actions?
  3. What forms of academic labour are legitimised and how does technology affect that legitimation?
  4. With a focus on technologies for militarisation and techniques for control, how is academic labour co-opted?
  5. How and where might academics push back, in order to abolish alienated labour?

Forking the University: legitimising deliberation in physical and virtual space

The theme of the place and politics of the Academic Commons crops up often in my writing and work. In particular I am taken with ideas of how and where academics and students as scholars can resist and then push back against the enclosure of the spaces and places for academic practice and critique. At DMU this has led to two inter-connected ideas: the virtual DMU Commons; and our new, physical Speaker’s Step in Magazine Square.

The Commons apes those other examples of virtual common-land, for instance at Lincoln, and CUNY, and BCU, and which our student DMU Commons Gardener is documenting here. Our Commons connects to a deeper history of protest, negation and refusal, and stories of custom-in-common that define a shared, collective identity, which I wrote about here. So our Commons is:

a shared place for the production of learning and research that is personally and socially transformative. Our DMU Commons will connect the social world of DMU to the resources, artefacts, networks and conversations that emerge from our thinking. The DMU Commons will nurture, stimulate and enhance respectful and generous learning conversations, within and beyond the University. It will help us to realise our ambitions through co-operation and our shared labours.

This connects to a second strand of thinking about hacking or forking the University, which is being developed nicely as a research project by Joss Winn at Lincoln, and which embeds ideas of craft and skill and tradition and production, and then links them to personal and social identity. I see this as a position from where the negation of ourselves as subjects inside the University might be fought. Moreover, it offers a way to connect with Christopher Newfield‘s desire for Re-Making the University in the face of austerity.

Thus, at DMU we might take the idea of craft and re-making or re-producing, in order to develop an idea of commonality around which we might also offer-up, create or carve out spaces for local/University developers, like the Leicester Linux Users’ Group, to engage with users, like the DMU Mashed group. This might then enable those new partnerships to use gizmos (Arduinos, Pis and drones) and sandboxes (part of a private cloud) to engage with real data (OpenAccess, OAuth and Big), in order to give a forked DMU community the opportunity to re-create/re-produce the University, and to solve problems inside enterprising, politicised, open spaces. In part this re-making depends upon the engagement of multiple and disparate groups in a set of shared problems, worked out in common or on a commons. Thus, the DMU Commons might become important as a place where research groups, developers, students, external friends of the University, alumni etc. might meet or see or review or hack or fork each other’s work.

However, we are now moving towards the idea that a DMU Commons might also need a physical place where ideas might be catalysed and problems identified and solutions debated. The need for a physical, communal spaces that also serve as ciphers for administrative or juridical or political groupings has a long tradition: from wapentakes/hundreds in English political administration; to the histories of general assemblies in, for example, student struggles; to workers’ councils; to the history of political reform meetings; and the recent histories of political struggles in Syntagma Square in Athens and Tahrir Square in Cairo. As spaces become enclosed the risk is that our opportunities for deliberation and free debate are stifled. The need is then for the courage to reassert in common our rights to deliberate in shared spaces.

At DMU we have begun to open-up just such a communal, deliberative space in Magazine Square, and we are reclaiming its use for the University-in-the-City. The space was first co-opted by Nick Clegg at the 2010 General Election and then, in response, by Ed Balls in 2011 in the run-up to the Leicester South by-election. Both Clegg and Balls stood at the same point on the same concrete podium, which serves as a seat in the Square, in order to make their election pitches. This is important precisely because it invested the square as a political space, but it is also important that the Square itself is centred on one of Leicester’s most historic spaces, by the Castle Magazine, Castle Park, St and Mary de Castro Church, and with a resonance through the University’s name to Simon de Montfort’s first Parliament.

It is also important that the seat, or step, sits very near to the the DMU/Leicester City Council boundary line. The demarcation is clearly marked by metal studs in the ground, and two brick square studs in the grass behind the speakers’ step. The deed lines for the land ownership are fascinating as they move along the front of DMU’s Hugh Aston Building and across the Magazine. This rudimentary sketch of the DMU/Leicester City Council Boundary shows this a little more clearly. Although the step wall where Clegg and Balls spoke technically belongs to Leicester City Council, there is no permission required given that speaking there will be an open public forum, taking place in an open public space. We are going to mark what we now refer to as Speaker’s Step with a plaque inscribed with Nelson Mandela’s quote that:

Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, you can be that generation”.

We have already held Student Union hustings on the Step, and on Thursday 8 March, to coincide with the Queen’s visit to DMU, we are hosting a series of speed lectures, hopefully complete with heckles and interruptions and questions, which will further inscribe Speaker’s Step as a space where we might reconnect the University with the public and the City. The idea for these speed lectures is to discuss the idea of the University as a public good, and Executive Board members, academic staff and students will be deliberating issues that matter to them around: local governance; creativity; open education; the NHS; software design and the history of computation; why we need another inquiry into housing; management information, universities and £9k fees; language development and education for the multicultural learner; and the cultural importance of Margaret Atwood and Florence Nightingale. We hope that this will be the beginning of a recapturing of this public space by the staff and students of DMU, as a way to re-create and re-produce the University as a public good deeply connected to the politics and place of Leicester.

As important will be our attempt to catalyse the use of the space for hustings, meetings, general assemblies, rallies and so on, as a legitimate form of re-imagining the University-in-the-City. Legitimising ways and places in which people can colonise and develop ideas and problems, and hopefully then re-produce or hack or fork the University, in order to solve those problems is central to this project. It is in the legitimation and interconnection of our DMU Commons with our Speaker’s Step, and the wider University/City, that we begin this political process.