Performance information and data-driven academic anxiety

ONE. Performance information: signalisation and dressage

Data is the bleeding edge. Follow the data to see where education is being cracked for value. Follow the data to see who is doing the cracking. Follow the data to see who is engaged in this process of enforced, public and open, educational data production. Follow the data to see who is then enclosing and commodifying that open and public data for profit. Follow the data to see who is selling and re-selling new services back into open and public spaces, and charging rents for them. Follow the data to see the transnational networks of dispossession that are using secondary policy, processes of entrepreneurialism, debt and indentured study, financialisation, and the assault on labour rights, to lever value.

And I am reminded of all this because Martin Eve pointed me to this University of Nottingham video on performance information. Not learning analytics. Not management information, but performance information. The disciplining of academic labour, where that labour is the work of both staff and students. Sold back to us as what students want, because their expectations have changed. Sold back to us in terms of progression and retention. Sold back to us as the new-normal.

Performance information sold back to us. The new normal. Dashboarding for success. For a moment I forgot myself and I read that as “waterboarding [academic labour] for success”.

TWO. I remember…

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of student debt, big data and academic alienation, arguing that “the mechanisms by which established hierarchies maintain their power through financialisation and information-sharing need to be described, and alternative positions developed.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of globalisation and the University, arguing that “the key is to understand how technology-driven innovations relate to the globally-hegemonic fraction of transnational, finance capital. This is critical because these innovations are not outside the circuits or cycles of globally mobile capital. Thus, these innovations further reduce the technical constraints or barriers to the reproduction of capital and its valorisation/accumulation processes, just as they revolutionise the transportation, interaction, production and consumption of individuals with (intellectual or cognitive) commodities/products.”

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

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of the domination of time and the liberation of a pedagogical alliance, arguing that “flows of management information like psychometric test outcomes and workload data, performance metrics like retention and progression data, and enriched use of technologies to manage research and teaching, attempt to reduce all academic activities to flows that take place in real-time, through structures that are always-on, with feedback and inputs that are “just in time”. As a result the University, like any other capitalist business, attempts to abolish time. Technologies and techniques are designed to accelerate production, to remove labour-related barriers, and to destroy the friction of circulation time.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of money, labour and academic co-operation, arguing that “This is a clear manifestation of the subsumption of academic research, in particular about progression into higher education and about pedagogic practice, for policy that is based on re-engineering society for market principles. Whilst networks exist (here from policy maker to think-tank) to promote those privatised principles in spaces that were/are publically-regulated, funded and governed, a critical question is whether it is possible to nurture networks that push-back against this hegemonic position? ”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of research and the circuit of impact, arguing that “Inside the University, impact signals compulsion that is itself self-harming behaviour, and then enforces dressage in the name of power. This point was made at Governing Academic Life by Michael Power, in his focus on the role of impact in acting as a form of governance over academic labour. He argued that impact was an open and public closure of what can be discussed and produced, in order that a governance/command structure for value production could be imposed. Here metrics and investment interact to forms a circuit of capital rooted in academic production, with that productive power of research being disciplined through signalisation that then imposes a form of dressage… we are witnessing the attempt by finance and commercial capital to synchronise production with their own circuits. This is an uncomfortable symbiosis, as those of us engaged in a higher education that is being restructured by the dictates of finance capital and a new market can attest.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of the proletarianisation of the University, arguing that “This is the relationship between labour-power and subsumption/accumulation across areas of work that were previously regarded as beyond the market. What is revealed in this process is the dispossession of individual and collective autonomy and time. The autonomy that is dispossessed relates to what can be produced and the process of production. The time that is dispossessed is both the present and the future that is foreclosed as it is alienated. This alienated labour-power is scrubbed clean of its usefulness beyond that dictated in the market by metrics, impact and satisfaction. What emerges is the substitution of that alienated labour-power for that which was previously locally-bargained, with control over the means of production residing transnationally rather than at a local level.”

THREE. What a mess.

This matters because we are now being taught about innovation spillovers by HM Government, and the explicit value of education to the wider economy. We are told that:

the share of hours worked by highly skilled employees is positively linked to almost all of the measures of productivity, profits and trade performance. Expenditure on training is associated with increased labour productivity at the enterprise level. Purchases of goods and/or services from the Education sector (comprising schools, and further and higher education institutions) increases labour productivity at the sector level, total factor productivity at both the sector and enterprise level, and the ratio of exports to output at the sector level. Exposure to spillovers from education purchases is negatively correlated with labour productivity but positively and significantly correlated with all the other performance variables. (p. 15)

And we already know that we have transnational corporations working with HMG or HEFCE to open-up UK higher education in the name of efficiency, like Pearson or Goldman Sachs.

And we already know that Universities UK are driving data-driven change in the name of a smarter, stronger sector.

And we already know that RAND Europe and Ranmore consulting have been working with HEFCE and the Leadership Foundation for HE, for example on impact metrics and the REF.

And we already know of the work around Britain’s “Emergent Corporate Universities”: Academia in the Service of International Capital and the Military Industrial Complex.

Happy days.

FOUR. Data and anxiety: does it really have to be this way?

In her excellent essay on the anxieties of big data, Kate Crawford argues:

Already, the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind ofsurveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us. Like a fluorescent light in a dark corridor, it can both show too much and not enough. Anxiety, as Sianne Ngai has written, has a temporality that is future oriented: it is an expectation emotion, and the expectation is generally of risk, exposure, and failure. British group Plan C in their blistering manifesto “We Are All Very Anxious” argue that anxiety is the dominant affect of our current phase of capitalism, engendering political hopelessness, insecurity, and social separation.

The current mythology of big data is that with more data comes greater accuracy and truth. This epistemological position is so seductive that many industries, from advertising to automobile manufacturing, are repositioning themselves for massive data gathering. The myth and the tools, as Donna Haraway once observed, mutually constitute each other, and the instruments of data gathering and analysis, too, act as agents that shape the social world. Bruno Latour put it this way: “Change the instruments, and you will change the entire social theory that goes with them.” The turn to big data is a political and cultural turn, and we are just beginning to see its scope.

Overcoming anxiety with anonymity then becomes the thing, as Tiqqun argue. This is the very ability to define a subjectivity beyond the hegemonic control of data as experience:

Establishing a zone of opacity where people can circulate and experiment freely without bringing in the Empire’s information flows, means producing “anonymous singularities,” recreating the conditions for a possible experience, an experience which will not be immediately flattened out by a binary machine assigning a meaning/direction to it, a dense experience that can transform desires and the moments where they manifest themselves into something beyond desire, into a narrative, into a filled-out body.

In her outstanding Ph.D. thesis on “The State Machine : politics, ideology, and computation in Chile, 1964-1973”, Jessica Miller Medina highlighted how the Allende Government in Chile attempted to utilize technology and data (through cybernetics) to create a new representation of society beyond the market, using different, co-operative organizing principles. The key for Miller Medina was to describe

not just a technological history but a history of the changing social networks that connected these technologies to the function of the state and its management (p. 17).

Moreover, her work reminds us to see the technological and technocratic ideas of Gartner and Willetts as means to “solidify a particular articulation of the state that was supported by new claims to legitimate power” (p. 96). Thus, she quotes Allende (p. 252) arguing for democratic renewal:

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

To use data beyond the market and beyond financialisation. To use data for co-operative performance beyond the market and beyond financialisation. To resist the co-option of data for impact and performance management. If you work in UK HE, good luck with that.

 


for a political economy of massive open online courses

I have an article coming out in a special issue of Learning, Media and Technology next year, on open education. It’s entitled “For a political economy of open education”.

Abstract

In understanding the changes that are impacting the global higher education sector, developing a critique of the relationships between technology and technological innovation, new managerialism and financialisation, and the impact of the secular crisis of 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.

This article will argue that educational innovations like MOOCs might usefully be examined in light of the relationships between: technological and organisational innovation; the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall that is affecting competing educational providers; the disciplinary role of the State in shaping an educational space for further capital accumulation; and the subsumption of open networks to the neoliberal project of accumulation and profitability. Such an analysis then enables a critique of the claims that are made for open networks in delivering new forms of sociability that transcend structures of power and domination.

As a result of this political economic critique, the article will situate the emergence of MOOCs inside-and-against Capital’s drive to subsume labour practices inside technologically-mediated forms of coercion, command and control. It will argue that the ways in which MOOCs and the services that are derived from them are then valorised might offer a glimpse of how the neoliberal educational project is disciplining academic labour and how it might be resisted.

NOTE

I have written about MOOCs and political economy here.

I have written about MOOCs and neoliberalism here.

I have written about MOOCs, networks and the rate of profit here.

I have written about MOOCs and the restructuring of the University here.


on the academic commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bragg, B. 1985. The World Turned Upside Down

 


CAMRI presentation: Against educational technology in the neoliberal university

I’m speaking at the University of Westminster’s Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) on 25 March 2015 about the relationship between capitalism, educational technology, and the proletarianisation of the University. How lovely.

The working title is: Against educational technology in the neoliberal university

The working abstract is…

In the Grundrisse, Marx argued that the circulation of productive capital was “a process of transformation, a qualitative process of value”. As capitalists sought to overcome the barriers to this transformatory process, they worked to revolutionise both the means of production via organisational and technological change, and circulation time via transportation and communication changes. Reducing friction in the production and circulation of capital is critical to the extraction of surplus value, and Marx argued that in this transformation “Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier [and]… the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.” Higher education is increasingly a space which is being recalibrated so as to increase the mobility or fluidity of intellectual production and circulation. Thus, technology, technical services and techniques are deployed to collapse the interfaces between space and time, and to subsume academic labour inside processes for valorisation.

However, this collapse also reveals the stresses and strains of antagonisms, as the friction of neoliberal higher education reform deforms existing cultures and histories. Through such a deformation, it also reminds us of alternative historical and material re-imaginings and alternatives like the Chilean CyberSyn project, the Ecuadorian National Plan for Good Living, the Hornsey Experiment, and so on. This paper argues that inside the University, the deployment of technologies, technical services and techniques enables education and academic labour to be co-opted for value-production. As a result, academics and students are defined as entrepreneurial subjects with limited power-to produce a world beyond value. A question is the extent to which pedagogical and transitional alternatives might be described, and whether in the process it is possible to uncover ways in which education might be used for co-operation rather than competition, as a form of resistance.


Open Education: Condition Critical

On November 20th I’m speaking on a panel at The Centre for Disruptive Media at Coventry University. The panel is on “Open Education: Condition Critical”.

The purpose is to explore “opportunities to critically and creatively experiment with different ideas of what the university and education can be.”

Event details

Thursday November 20th 4:30-6:30pm

Coventry University, Disruptive Media Learning Lab, 3rd floor Frederick Lanchester Library

Free entrance. Please register at: http://criticalopeneducation.eventbrite.co.uk

Panellists

Sean Dockray (The Public School)

Richard Hall (De Montfort University Leicester)

Shaun Hides (Coventry University)

Sharon Irish (University of Illinois/FemTechNet)

Pauline van Mourik Broekman (Mute)

Panel scope

What for decades could only be dreamt of is now almost within reach: the widespread provision of free online education, regardless of a student’s geographic location, financial status or ability to access conventional institutions of learning. Yet for all the hype-cycle that has been entered into over MOOCs, many experiments with Open Education (OE) do not appear to be designed to challenge the becoming business of the university or alter Higher Education in any really fundamental way. If anything, they seem more likely to lead to a two-tier system, in which those who can’t afford to pay (so much) to attend a traditional university, or belong to those groups who prefer not to move away from home (e.g. lower-income families), have to make do with a poor, online, second-rate alternative education produced by a global corporation.

Open Education: Condition Critical will thus examine some of the opportunities that exist for experimenting, critically and creatively, with very different ideas of what the university and education can be in the 21st century. In doing so, rather than focusing on the 2012 batch of extremely publicity-savvy xMOOCs (Edx, Udacity, FutureLearn etc.), it will draw attention to a range of more radical developments in the Open Education arena. They include The Public School, FemTechNet’s DOCCs (Distributed Open Collaborative Courses), the self-organised ‘free universities’ associated with the Occupy, anti-austerity and student protests, and even so-called ‘pirate’ libraries such as libgen.org and aaaaarg.org.

Open Education: Condition Critical has been organised to mark the publication of Open Education: A Study in Disruption (London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2014), co-authored by Coventry University’s Open Media Group and Mute Publishing as a critical experiment with both collaborative, processual writing and concise, medium-length forms of shared attention.


Technology and co-operative practice against the neoliberal university

I’m presenting at the CAPPE Neoliberalism and Everyday Life conference on Thursday in Brighton, on Technology and co-operative practice against the neoliberal university. My slides are available here. I will be arguing three points.

ONE. Technology reveals an entrepreneurial reconfiguring of the idea of the University, which is increasingly witnessed in/catalysed by the policy/practice statements of politicians like David Willetts and Liam Byrne. The roll-out of innovations like the FEER amplify this narrative. However, critiques of the pedagogic pathology of entrepreneurialism are emerging (e.g. in Will Davies’ new book on the Limits of Neoliberalism), related to the expansion of the market and the use of debt to foreclose on the future. These critiques force us to question the ways in which entrepreneurial techniques are being used to recalibrate the University and the relationships between students/staff and students/debt, as higher education is restructured for value. Moreover, they reveal a deeper relationship between transnational frameworks, technology and higher education.

TWO. Technology is a crack through which we might analyse the interests that drive value production and accumulation, and their relation to power. Technology is one mechanism for managing the structural crisis of capitalism by opening the public sector to capital accumulation on a global terrain and across time. It also enables labour arbitrage to take place on that same scale, catalysed by transnational activist networks. Technological innovations might usefully be seen as responses to: lower levels of profitability across global capitalism; increasing global, educational consumption; and making previously marginal (and public) sectors of the economy explicitly productive. Technological innovation is therefore: a way of leveraging the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested; a mechanism for the redistribution of surplus value from businesses that produce commodities or services like universities to those that market them or that lend money to make academic labour productive; a way of revolutionising the means of production.

NOTE: it is important to see technological change is the result of social forces in struggle and the need to overcome the temporal and spatial barriers to accumulation. This needs to be seen in terms of the production and accumulation of value in order to reproduce power-over the world. This is the power of transnational capitalism over the objective material reality of life, and which is reinforced technologically and pedagogically. To argue for emancipation through technological innovation is to fetishise technology and to misunderstand how technology is shaped by the clash of social forces and the desire of capital to escape the barriers imposed by labour.

THREE. What is to be done? A re-imagination based on mass intellectuality and open co-operativism. Here I ask Inside the University, can educational technology be (ref)used politically to recompose the realities of global struggles for emancipation, rather than for value? Is there a co-operative crack through which “mass intellectuality” might be liberated or emerge? I look to some of the work that Joss Winn and I have done on open co-operativism and mass intellectuality to suggest the following discussion points for the co-operative, public university as an associational network.

  • Can the co-operative, public university be configured along the lines of the democratic governance and regulation of transnational worker co-operatives?
  • Can the co-operative, public university connect to the circuits of p2p production and distribution?
  • Can the co-operative, public university reflect the open, democratic, autonomous, social focus of co-operatives?
  • Can the co-operative, public university define a framework for the common ownership of products, assets and commodities?
  • Can the co-operative, public university represent a reclamation of public environments for the globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge (e.g. copyfarleft)?
  • Can the co-operative, public university help to connect a global set of educational commons rooted in critical pedagogy?
  • Can the co-operative, public university be based on Winn’s ideas of conversion, dissolution or creation, as a transitional and pedagogic project?

on the crisis of value, alienation and pedagogical moments

Our concrete/abstract alienation

In his Education After Auschwitz, Adorno wrote (p. 6) that

People who blindly slot themselves into the collective already make themselves into something like inert material, extinguish themselves as self-determined beings. With this comes the willingness to treat others as an amorphous mass. I called those who behave in this way “the manipulative character” in the Authoritarian Personality… He does not for one second think or wish that the world were any different than it is, he is obsessed by the desire of doing things, indifferent to the content of such action. He makes a cult of action, activity, of so-called efficiency as such which reappears in the advertising image of the active person… I would call it the type of reified consciousness. People of such a nature have, as it were, assimilated themselves to things. And then, when possible, they assimilate others to things.

Adorno goes on to state that in this process of reification, our humanity and our search for a dignified life are lost. This is made worse because we are unable to discuss the analytical characteristics of that life, and instead we leave ourselves with descriptions of how we might exist. So, for example, rather than discussing how we produce our society in the face of economic or environmental crises, we fetishise technology as a means of recuperating value production and overcoming the realities of climate change. Here the veil of technology determines the limits of our engagement with social reproduction as the use and exchange of immateriality, without our analysis of the ways in which that immateriality is founded inside the living death of capitalist work. For Adorno (p. 8) this means that we are unable to see:

where the threshold lies between a rational relationship to technology and the over-valuation that finally leads to the point where one who cleverly devises a train system that brings the victims to Auschwitz as quickly and smoothly as possible forgets about what happens to them there.

We are pedagogically and technologically unable to critique the societal order that produces and reproduces what Adorno calls (p. 9) “the condition for disaster”, because our roles inside capitalism are formed of mediated relationships, like teacher and student that appear to be our really existing lifeworld. The only way around this is for education to transform itself openly into sociology. “[I]t must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.” (Adorno, p. 10)

Postone, in his Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to “Holocaust”, pushes this argument about reification by way of demonstrating the interrelationships and interplay between the concrete and the abstract, as they are formed of and reproduce capitalist society. He argues that crises or catastrophes or atrocities are internalised and normalised (p. 100):

The goal was “normalcy” at all costs – one to be achieved without dealing with the past. The strong identification with that past was not overcome, but simply buried beneath a surfeit of Volkswagens… A kind of collective somnabulism resulted, with the majority of the population sleep-walking its way through the Cold War, the “economic miracle,” the reemergence of politics with the student revolt, repressing the past.

For Postone, it is critical that in dealing with and making sense of the collapse of the past into the present the future is not foreclosed. In making sense, the qualitative specificity of the particular crisis “requires a much more concretized mediation in order to even approach its understanding.” (p. 106)

Thus, Postone argues that in understanding the Holocaust and in refusing its reproduction, the interplay between the abstract world and its concrete realisation is fundamental. Here there is a flow between the concrete and the abstract so that each emerges from the other, and the intellectual problem is to reveal this emergence because “the abstract domination of capital… caught people up in a web of dynamic forces they could not understand” (p. 106). Thus:

What is required, then, is an approach which allows for a distinction between what modern capitalism is and the way it appears, between its essence and appearance. The concept “modern” does not allow for such a distinction. These considerations lead us to Marx’s concept of the fetish, the strategic intent of which was to provide a social and historical theory of knowledge grounded in the difference between the essence of capitalist social relations and their manifest form. (p. 108)

Critical here is finding a means of decoding how relations of production and the commodities that are produced socially, are externalised and take the form of fetishes. Moreover, they are at once both abstract and concrete, with each informing the production and reproduction of the other. In Postone’s argument this appears on the surface of society to be a set of relationships that are mediated and abstracted by money (as a representation of value) and by the law. For many, this then feels less meaningful or truthful than the concrete form of labour or even of work. It thus becomes difficult to move beyond the alienation of both concrete and abstract labour because neither can be decoded, and the result is that our reality is subsumed.

One aspect of the fetish, then, is that capitalist social relations do not appear as such and, moreover, present themselves antinomically, as the opposition of the abstract and concrete. Because, additionally, both sides of the antinomy are objectified, each appears to be quasi-natural: the abstract dimension appears in the form of “objective,”” natural” laws; the concrete dimension appears as pure “thingly” nature. The structure of alienated social relations which characterize capitalism has the form of a quasi-natural antinomy in which the social and historical do not appear. (p. 109)

This is the dialectical relation between the abstract and the concrete, which is both historical and material. Without an analysis of the ways that both concrete and abstract labour are manifest in capitalist social relations and generative of value, there is no way that crises can be overcome. Thus, in the Grundrisse, Marx argues:

The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception. … the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought… even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations.

As Marx notes in Capital Volume 1 “concrete labour becomes, therefore, the medium for expressing abstract human labour.” This is critical for Postone in understanding how the production of relative surplus value, and the relationships between concrete and abstract in that capitalist production process, make environmental degradation inevitable.

Leaving aside considerations of possible limits or barriers to capital accumulation, one consequence implied by this particular dynamic — which yields increases in material wealth far greater than those in surplus value — is the accelerating destruction of the natural environment. According to Marx, as a result of the relationship among productivity, material wealth, and surplus value, the ongoing expansion of the latter increasingly has deleterious consequences for nature as well as for humans. (Postone, Time, Labour and Social Domination, p. 311)

 

The pattern I have outlined suggests that, in the society in which the commodity is totalized, there is an underlying tension between ecological considerations and the imperatives of value as the form of wealth and social mediation. It implies further that any attempt to respond fundamentally, within the framework of capitalist society, to growing environmental destruction by restraining this society’s mode of expansion would probably be ineffective on a long-term basis — not only because of the interests of the capitalists or state managers, but because failure to expand surplus value would indeed result in severe economic difficulties with great social costs. In Marx’s analysis, the necessary accumulation of capital and the creation of capitalist society’s wealth are intrinsically related. Moreover […] because labor is determined as a necessary means of individual reproduction in capitalist society, wage laborers remain dependent on capital’s “growth,” even when the consequences of their labor, ecological and otherwise, are detrimental to themselves and to others. The tension between the exigencies of the commodity form and ecological requirements becomes more severe as productivity increases and, particularly during economic crises and periods of high unemployment, poses a severe dilemma. This dilemma and the tension in which it is rooted are immanent to capitalism: their ultimate resolution will be hindered so long as value remains the determining form of social wealth. (Postone, Time, Labour and Social Domination, p. 313)

However, the festishisation of the concrete, or of the use-value of commodities and the production process does not enable us to manage crises, either of barriers to capitalist accumulation or environmental degradation or societal/political atrocities. For Postone, “concrete labor itself incorporates and is materially formed by capitalist social relations” (p. 110, Anti-Semitism). In fact, in discussing the degradation of the natural world, the naturalisation of concrete labour underscores a kind of “biologized” fetishisation, based on the idea of artisanal or organic production that stands against “the manifest form of its abstract dimension: finance and interest capital” (p. 110, Anti-Semitism). This is in opposition to the deep interrelationships between the concrete and abstract dimensions, which are quickened though technology.

Interestingly, Postone makes a critical point about the relationship between the concrete, productive manifestation of capital, through its relationships to industry and technology, as a form of natural work or labour, and crisis. Thus, the idea

that the concrete is “natural,” and which increasingly presents the socially “natural” in such a way that it is perceived in biological terms. It is precisely the hypostatization of the concrete and the identification of capital with the manifest abstract which renders this ideology so functional for the development of industrial capitalism in crisis. National Socialist ideology was in the interests of capital not only for the very obvious reason that it was virulently anti-Marxist and that the Nazis destroyed the organizations of the German working class. It was also in the interests of capital in the transition from liberal to quasi-state capitalism. The identification of capital with the manifest abstract overlaps, in part, with its identification with the market. The attack on the liberal state, as abstract, can further the development of the interventionist state, as concrete. This form of “anti-capitalism,” then, only appears to be looking backwards with yearning. As an expression of the capital fetish its real thrust is forwards. It is an aid to capitalism in the transition to quasi-state capitalism in a situation of structural crisis (p. 111, Anti-Semitism).

This form of “anti-capitalism,” then, is based on a one-sided attack on the abstract. The abstract and concrete are not seen as constituting an antinomy where the real overcoming of the abstract – of the value dimension – involves the historical overcoming of the antinomy itself as well as each of its terms. Instead there is the one-sided attack on abstract Reason, abstract law or, on another level, money and finance capital. In this sense it is antionomically complementary to liberal thought, where the domination of the abstract remains unquestioned and the distinction between positive and critical reason is not made. The “anti-capitalist” attack, however, does not remain limited to the attack against abstraction. Even the abstract dimension also appears materially. On the level of the capital fetish, it is not only the concrete side of the antimony which is naturalized and biologized. (p. 112, Anti-Semitism)

In moments of crisis, Postone argues that not only is it a mistake to seek redress in technocratic domination or in terms of abstract reason, but it is also alienating to look for biologistic understandings of the social problem of ecology.

Any “anti-capitalism” which seeks the immediate negation of the abstract and glorifies the concrete – instead of practically and theoretically considering what the historical overcoming of both could mean – can, at best, be socially and politically impotent in the face of capital. At worst it can be dangerous, even if the needs it expresses could be interpreted as emancipatory. (p. 115, Anti-Semitism)

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

On value: the noose tightens

The UK’s University and College Union has warned that The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership “poses a profound threat to public services in general, including education, leaving them wide open not only to greater privatisation but making it harder for any future government to regulate foreign private sector companies operating in our public services.” (p. 1) In part this is because it enables the regulation of the idea of the public and the functions of the State, like education and healthcare, through Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanisms. This is especially the case where actions that are for the public, like nationalisation, are perceived as threatening or affecting private profits.

From a reading of Jappe’s recent History of the Critique of Value, the TTIP and the Trans-Pacific Trade Treaty are symptomatic of the material (structural and systemic), historical inability of capital to overcome the limitations on stable, global forms of accumulation. He argues (p. 1):

After two centuries, the capitalist mode of production had reached its historical limits: the rationalisation of production, which involves the replacement of human labour by technology, undermines the basis of the production of value, and therefore of surplus-value, which is the sole objective of producing commodities. However, nothing but living labour, the labour required in the act of its execution, creates value and surplus-value.

In this view:

Capital is not the opposite of labour but its accumulated form. Living labour and dead labour are not two antagonistic entities but rather two different “states of aggregation” of the same substance of labour. The labourer as such is not at all outside of capitalist society but embodies one of its two poles. It is therefore possible to conclude from Marx’s analyses that a “workers’ revolution against capitalism” is a logical impossibility. There can only be a revolution against the subjection of society and individuals to the logic of valorisation and abstract labour. (p. 5)

It is not possible to abolish value without abolishing the labour that created it. This is why contesting capitalism in the name of labour makes no sense. It would make just as little sense to set good concrete labour against bad abstract labour. When all forms of labour cease to be reduced to what they have in common —the expenditure of energy—there will no longer be “concrete” labour (such a category is itself an abstraction). There will instead be a multiplicity of activities with specific goals in mind. (p. 6)

One of the critical issues is that globally “the absolute amount of value, and therefore of surplus-value, is declining precipitously” (p. 7), which places a society based on the production and accumulation of value in crisis, not least because it leads to labour-related counter-measures linked to unemployment, precarity, organisational restructuring, outsourcing and so on, alongside a series of financialised counter-measures, like quantitative easing, bank bailouts and wealth transfers from young people via debt to pay for an expected future standard of living. This decline in value is also witnessed in the growing amount of externalised national debt, which is based to a large extent on unrealisable assets like toxic mortgages and sub-prime educational loans. This also mediates the relationship between national debt and geopolitical manoeuvring, like the recent questions over whether Russia is Dumping U.S. Government Bonds, or the relationship between fossil fuel energy, geopolitics and the future of the petrodollar.

In this interplay between finance capital that is both abstracted from the circuit of production (in bond markets) and made concrete in the realities of everyday life (in student labour or fossil fuel use), and the reproduction of a society based on value production and accumulation:

A growing disparity arises between developments in the productive powers of labor (which are not necessarily bound to the direct labor of the workers), on the one hand, and the value frame within which such developments are expressed (which is bound to such labor), on the other. The disparity between the accumulation of historical time and the objectification of immediate labor time becomes more pronounced as scientific knowledge is increasingly materialized in production… a growing disparity separates the conditions for the production of material wealth from those for the generation of value. (Postone, Time, Labour and Social Domination, p. 297)

For Jappe, what this crisis of value formation means is not to reify labour in its concrete form, but to recognise that:

It is therefore not a matter of predicting some future collapse of capitalism, but to recognise that the crisis is already taking place and getting worse despite brief short-term recoveries. It is a crisis that is far from just economic. (p. 8)

On value and climate

In his Energy Speech in Cushing, Oklahoma, on March 22, 2012, President Obama argued that:

Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quad­rupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth, and then some. . . . In fact, the problem . . . is that we’re actually producing so much oil and gas . . . that we don’t have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it where it needs to go… as long as I’m President, we’re going to keep on encouraging oil development and infrastructure and we’re going to do it in a way that protects the health and safety of the American people. We don’t have to choose between one or the other, we can do both.

Thus, in spite of the activist, academic position that states that in order to limit climate change to below two degrees we can produce and use no more than 565 Gigatonnes of fossil fuels from the 2,795 Gigatonnes that are available, the global economy’s production of value is underwritten by carbon. Quoted in the Guardian

John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.

And this highlights the inter-relationships between value, energy, (unrealisable) assets, and our climate crisis, brought vividly into relief by Carbon Tracker and Grantham Research Institute, and Kalkuhl and Edenhofer work on stocks of carbon in the ground and in the atmosphere.

So we have the US Chamber of Commerce arguing for the role of US technology in alleviating energy poverty through access to energy, and the Center for Global Development pointing out that the World Bank is arguing for coal in order to support development agendas with the implication that:

While it can be politically attractive to argue that both energy access and climate goals can be met without any trade-offs, tensions between the two goals are becoming increasingly apparent and future disputes seem likely to emerge. (p. 3)

These disputes are then made visible in the US Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, which states:

Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating. These changes, coupled with other global dynamics, including growing, urbanizing, more affluent populations, and substantial economic growth in India, China, Brazil, and other nations, will devastate homes, land, and infrastructure. Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence. (p. 8)

Furthermore, as President Obama noted at the recent United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony:

That spirit of cooperation needs to energize the global effort to combat climate change — a creeping national security crisis that will help shape your time in uniform, as we are called on to respond to refugee flows and natural disasters and conflicts over water and food, which is why next year I intend to make sure America is out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet… America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism — it is a matter of national security. Democracies are our closest friends and are far less likely to go to war. Economies based on free and open markets perform better and become markets for our goods.

This is the law of value, reinforced democratically and militarily as a disciplinary force, which is both concrete and abstract, and leads us towards the surface acceptance that our adaptive abilities will enable us to continue to grow everything and everywhere, except in our output of carbon. Yet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s summary for policymakers on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability demonstrates that we are in the midst of a global pedagogical moment that furthers the crisis of accumulation.

Uncertainties about future vulnerability, exposure, and responses of interlinked human and natural systems are large (high confidence). This motivates exploration of a wide range of socioeconomic futures in assessments of risks. Understanding future vulnerability, exposure, and response capacity of interlinked human and natural systems is challenging due to the number of interacting social, economic, and cultural factors, which have been incompletely considered to date. These factors include wealth and its distribution across society, demographics, migration, access to technology and information, employment patterns, the quality of adaptive responses, societal values, governance structures, and institutions to resolve conflicts. International dimensions such as trade and relations among states are also important for understanding the risks of climate change at regional scales. (p. 10)

However, the IPCC is unable to imagine adaptation beyond capitalist counter-measures. It is unable to move beyond the abstraction of the law of value as it mediates our everyday reality, in order to describe or call for a different way of doing things.

Existing and emerging economic instruments can foster adaptation by providing incentives for anticipating and reducing impacts (medium confidence). Instruments include public-private finance partnerships, loans, payments for environmental services, improved resource pricing, charges and subsidies, norms and regulations, and risk sharing and transfer mechanisms. Risk financing mechanisms in the public and private sector, such as insurance and risk pools, can contribute to increasing resilience, but without attention to major design challenges, they can also provide disincentives, cause market failure, and decrease equity. Governments often play key roles as regulators, providers, or insurers of last resort. (p. 26)

On pedagogic moments

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels argue that the need to create and enable capital flows, accumulation and spaces for further valorisation, results in “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products [which in turn] chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.” One result is that bourgeois, transnational and cosmopolitan consumption triumphs over local, national cultures, and industries that are defined by productivity and intensity dislodge indigenous cultures.

Thus, it is argued that the Bourgeoisie, though its new powers of production and its commodities and its restructuring of laws, inscribes new, global markets into the circuits of production, and creates a world in its own image. This echoes Marx’s argument in the Grundrisse that the hegemony of the bourgeois mode of production rests on the expansion of a global system of valorisation, which in turn demands that commodities are not simply used but exchanged. This process of exchange demands the spatial transformation of productive forces, including transport and modes of communication. Thus, Capital drives beyond its spatial barriers and we see the “annihilation of space by time”, as circulation time and labour time are revolutionised to give quicker access to new markets.

How do we transform our thinking around a society based on value, in the face of climate change and potentially unrealisable carbon-based assets? How do we mediate and understand the concrete/abstract realities of climate change as they affect everyday life, in order to reimagine that everyday life? For Jappe this is centred in the reality of everyday life, and in reclaiming critique of the very abstract and concrete categories that produce and reproduce it.

In general, all recourse to “politics” (especially the state) is impossible because the end of accumulation and therefore of “real” money deprives public authorities of any means of intervention. In order to find an alternative to capitalism, it is first necessary to question the nature of the commodity and money, of labour and value, categories that seem “theoretical” but whose consequences ultimately determine what we do everyday. (p. 13)

This has echoes of Marx’s idea of communism in The German Ideology, not as “a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself [but] the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” Moreover, it also refocuses us on an idea of the public, in line with Cumbers’ focus on

those attempts, both outside and through the state, to create forms of collective ownership in opposition to, or perhaps more accurately to reclaim economic space from, capitalist social relations. If we understand capitalism as built upon the three pillars of the wage relationship, private property relations and the market, all forms of collective ownership that seek to disturb and intervene in these spheres should come into our analysis. (p. 7)

This is not simply a call to secure and re-form the Commons, which for Cumbers is

frequently evoked as a more democratic, participatory and horizontal model of ownership…which at the same time respects local difference and diversity of ownership forms against the prescriptive one-size-fits-all models of market-driven capitalism or statist socialism/social democracy. Following on from this, a further critical aspect of the contemporary commons literature is the rejection of the classical Marxist revolutionary call for a vanguard to smash capitalism. Instead the radical project today is to construct autonomous spaces outside capitalism in the here and now – i.e. prefigurative – rather than a once-and-for-all future revolutionary uprising to overthrow capitalism through an assault on the state (p.128).

Here the interrelationship between the Commons, the State and its institutions, and civil society is critical in trying to define a post-capitalism as a pedagogical, societal moment that is historically-rooted and material in nature. Here Cumbers’ argument that “there needs to be a more nuanced appreciation of the dynamic nature of spatial organization and governance under advanced capitalism…” (p. 156), aligns with the work of the FLOK Society in its Open Letter to the Commoners:

Imagine a society that is connected to open knowledge commons in every domain of human activity, based on free and open knowledge, code, and design that can be used by all citizens along with government and market players without the discrimination and disempowerment that follows from privatized knowledge.

It also aligns with the FLOK Society’s General Framework Document, which aims

to trigger and coordinate a global participatory process and immediate national application for the change of productive matrix towards a society of open and common knowledge in Ecuador, resulting in 10 base documents for legislation and state policies (synchronized with the organic social code for the knowledge economy) as well as useful for the production networks of knowledge that already exist in Ecuador. The conceptual, philosophical and economic process and the historical and socio-cognitive context framework, the organizational principles governing the process, collaborative and communicative digital tools and advance planning of the whole process.

The issue is whether it is possible to reclaim the public space, in the face of the crisis of value and the concomitant crisis of the climate. Is it possible to reconsider pedagogically the relation between the concrete and the abstract as they are reproduced inside capitalism? Is it possible to liberate democratic capability and to reorient social production away from value and towards the very possibility of governing and managing the production of everyday life in a participatory manner?

For the FLOK Society in researching the Ecuadorian National Plan for Good Living, this entails:

a new convergence or synthesis, a ‘open cooperativism’, that combines both commons-oriented open peer production models, with common ownership and governance models such as those of the cooperatives and the solidarity economic models.

It means a re-envisioning of Near Future Education and of Education as a Commons. It also means the negation of the reified nature of academic labour. So that values rather than value are at the core of how society is reproduced. So that the abstracted and festishised nature of academic practice and knowledge might be overcome. A pedagogical moment that enables the characteristics that flow into and out of academic labour, in terms of value, money and the commodity, to be defined in another image of society and social production. This is a pedagogical moment that recovers the ideas of open, participatory publics, from the ravages of private value accumulation. This is a pedagogical moment that forms part of the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.


Friction! co-operation and technology in the neoliberal university

On Thursday I’m presenting at Friction: An interdisciplinary conference on technology & resistance at the University of Nottingham. I’ll be speaking about co-operation and technology in the neoliberal university. The abstract is appended below and the slides are here.

Abstract

In the Grundrisse, Marx argued that the circulation of productive capital was “a process of transformation, a qualitative process of value”. As capitalists sought to overcome the barriers to this transformatory process, they worked to revolutionise both the means of production via organisational and technological change, and circulation time via transportation and communication changes. Reducing friction in the production and circulation of capital is critical to the extraction of surplus value, and Marx argued that in this transformation “Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier [and]… the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.”

Higher education is increasingly a space which is being recalibrated so as to reduce friction and thereby to increase the mobility or fluidity of intellectual production and circulation. Thus, technology, technical services and techniques are deployed to collapse the interfaces between geography, space and time. However, this collapse also reveals the stresses and strains of antagonisms, as the friction of neoliberal higher education reform deforms existing cultures and histories. It also points to alternatives like those emerging from analyses of the Chilean CyberSyn project or the Ecuadorian National Plan for Good Living.

This paper argues that inside the University, the deployment of technologies, technical services and techniques enables education to be co-opted as an institutional means for production and control. As a result, academics and students are defined as entrepreneurial subjects. A question is the extent to which the friction that emerges from this neoliberal pedagogic project can be used to describe alternatives, and whether in the process it is possible to uncover ways in which education might be used for co-operation rather than competition, as a form of resistance.


The implications of Autonomist Marxism for research and practice in education and technology

I have a new article out in Learning, Media and Technology, with the fun title of “The implications of Autonomist Marxism for research and practice in education and technology”. The article is available (if you subscribe) here. Sadly, the article is only available behind a paywall, although there are 50 free copies here. I was approached by the editor to write a theoretical piece for Learning, Media and Technology. I accepted because that is the kind of thing that academics do. Martin Weller writes critically about open access and open scholarship. Wherever possible I will try to find ways to publish openly, as I did with this article on digital literacy.

The abstract is appended below.

Abstract

This article considers the relevance of Autonomist Marxism for both research and practice in education and technology. The article situates the Autonomist perspective against that of traditional Marxist thought – illustrating how certain core Autonomist concepts enable a critical reading of developments in information and communication technology. These include notions of the ‘social factory’, ‘immaterial labour’ and ‘cognitive capital’, the ‘general intellect’ and ‘mass intellectuality’, and the ‘cybernetic hypothesis’. It is argued that these perspectives are particularly useful in enabling a critique of the place of education and technology inside the circuits and cycles of globalised capitalism. The Autonomist approach can be criticised – not least for its apparent network-centrism and its disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production. Nevertheless, this position offers a powerful ‘way in’ to understanding education and technology as key sites of struggle. It lays bare the mechanisms through which technology-rich educational settings are co-opted for work, while also suggesting possibilities for pushing back against the subsumption of contemporary education for capitalist work.


Professorial Inaugural: 2+2=5: The university and the secular crisis

My inaugural professorial lecture is scheduled for Wednesday 8 October 2014, at 6pm at DMU. I will try to stream it. I will post details of how to book to attend closer to the time.

A working abstract is given below.

However, I thought that we needed a double feature, with a short film that precedes the second feature. The short is currently in slide form and has been uploaded on my slideshare —> here.

NOTE ONE: this short needs to be consumed with Radiohead’s 2+2=5. You might be able to source that here, or here.

NOTE TWO: this short needs a digestif. Try this.

NOTE THREE: a playlist will follow.

Working abstract

What does it mean to teach and to study in the Twenty-First Century University? Is it possible to critique our academic labour as teachers and students, in order to overcome the alienation of our Twenty-First Century lives? 

In Volume 1 of Capital, Marx (p. 617) wrote that:

Modern industry never treats views or treats the existing form of a production process as the definitive one. Its technical basis is therefore revolutionary, whereas all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative… it is continually transforming not only the technical basis of production but also the functions of the worker and the social combinations of the labour process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionizes the division of labour within society, and incessantly throws masses of capital and of workers from one branch of production to another. Thus large-scale industry, by its very nature, necessitates variation of labour, fluidity of functions, and mobility of the worker in all directions.

In the global North, the material consequences of this secular crisis of capitalism affect the University and higher education as one branch of production. As productivity across the economy stagnates and investment collapses, capital is being accumulated as money or as securitised assets, including student debts and institutional bond issues. Moreover, Capital, operating through transnational activist networks, is looking for ways to crack open and extracting the historic, socialised value contained in public education through labour arbitrage, outsourcing, philanthrocapitalism and privatisation.

This lecture will argue that the neoliberal assault on the idea of public higher education in the United Kingdom can only be understood against the idea of the secular crisis. It argues that the University is being redefined inside the systemic realities of capitalism’s drive to re-establish profitability and accumulation, which restructures universities as associations of competing capitals. A critical strand of this argument is the role of technology, in driving discourses of efficiency, marketization and entrepreneurial activity. Technology ties the University to the realities of capitalist work and reinscribes the capital-labour relationship immaterially. The illusion of technological innovation disables us from solving issues of social production, environmental degradation or global leadership.

In describing and analyzing this restructuring of the University, the lecture will engage with the idea of systemic domination in the name of value, and the activist focus on engaging with power constructed qualitatively rather than quantitatively. Thus, the lecture considers how a critique of the University inside-and-against the secular crisis might enable academics and students to develop educational spaces where knowing and subjectivity might be developed, based in-part on co-operative knowledge that is liberated from formal educational spaces. As Cleaver notes in his final two theses on the Secular Crisis, ‘the liberation of alternative, self-determined social “logics” outside and beyond that of capital’ is central to the development of a revolutionary subjectivity. Moreover, this subjectivity is entwined with the need to develop

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

At issue is how educational narratives that emerge inside-and-against the market and the State, and which are social and co-operative, might be described and nurtured. One outcome might be the ability of academics and students to produce an alternative, qualitatively different idea of the University that is against-and-beyond the secular crisis.