On co-operation, accumulation and the University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Endnotes argue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One outcome is generalised proletarianisation. As they go on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Educational technology and the crisis

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

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

ONE: we need to talk about capitalism.

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

TWO: we need to talk about labour-power.

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

THREE: we need to talk about technology.

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

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

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

FOUR: we need to talk about technology and resistance.

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

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

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

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

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

FIVE: we need to talk about recovering subjectivity.

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

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

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

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

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

Some notes towards a co-operative pedagogy of struggle

ONE: neoliberalism as a global pedagogy of dispossession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWO: the Cybernetic Hypothesis as pedagogic project

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education forms a critical new terrain inside which high technology is used for control. This includes developing new services like learning analytics, implementing mechanisms for performance management, and predicting futures as educational spaces become financialised through student loans and bonds. Technology is used to reinforce regimes of biopower that seek the panoptic monitoring, surveillance and measurement of all activity. In this view, cybernetics is ‘not just a technological history but a history of the changing social networks that connected these technologies to the function of the state and its management’ (Miller Medina, 2005, p. 17). Thus, economic and technological interdependence restrict human agency and the possibilities for emancipation because cybernetic rationality demands and reinforces certain digital and material behaviours, practices, attributes and competencies. In turn, this crystallises the power of technocrats, administrators or education corporations for risk management, as well as the identification of entrepreneurial behavours.

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

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

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

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

THREE: an abstract pedagogic project.

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOUR: for a pedagogy of struggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the co-operative University as a field of opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ONE: outing capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWO: competition or co-operation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE: the co-operative university and associational democracy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… association to control their conditions of life together.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOUR: six sets of questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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?


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.


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.


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.