The university is itself a means of production

If we examine the whole [labour] process from the point of view of its result, the product, it is plain that both the instruments and the subject of labour, are means of production, and that the labour itself is productive labour. (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, Ch. 7)

Following on from my earlier notes, I wanted to be clearer about what I understand by the ‘means of production’.

Marx clearly defines the ‘means of production’ as “the instruments and the subjects of labour”, which, when combined with human labour i.e. work, becomes a productive force.

The elementary factors of the labour-process are 1, the personal activity of man, i.e., work itself, 2, the subject of that work [i.e. raw materials or the product of a previous labour process – in our case ‘prior knowledge’], and 3, its instruments [i.e. technology, buildings, roads, etc.]. (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, Ch. 7)

Therefore, when we speak of the university itself as a ‘means of production’, we refer to the configuration of its ‘instruments’ (e.g. technology, buildings, etc.), and the ‘subject of labour’ (e.g. prior knowledge). In other words, the ‘means of production’ refers to the university’s structural, technological and bureaucratic configuration as a form of capital for the production of knowledge. The university incorporates prior knowledge into its production process and the knowledge it produces is offered as the ‘subject of labour’ elsewhere, resulting in capital accumulation (i.e. growth).

The academic and student are brought together by this configuration in order to produce new knowledge through their labour. However, in a content-driven form of higher education, the student’s role shifts towards that of a consumer of knowledge which is produced by academics and, increasingly, through a global, social process that is distributed via mass forms of communication e.g. the Internet. In this consumer role, the student is profoundly dis-empowered, having become integral to the exchange process (the moment at which surplus value/profit is realised), rather than the production process (the moment at which value is created).

If the purpose of higher education is the production of knowledge, its product is knowledge and so we must examine the whole labour process from this standpoint, beginning not from the exchange process, nor from the point of view of its instruments (i.e. technology) but from the labour process.

That labourer alone is productive, who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, and thus works for the self-expansion of capital. If we may take an example from outside the sphere of production of material objects, a schoolteacher is a productive labourer, when, in addition to belabouring the heads of their scholars, they work like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out their capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory, does not alter the relation. Hence the notion of a productive labourer implies not merely a relation between work and useful effect, between labourer and product of labour, but also a specific, social relation of production, a relation that has sprung up historically and stamps the labourer as the direct means of creating surplus-value. To be a productive labourer is, therefore, not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.(Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Chapter 16)

Finally, a word of caution on the use of the term ‘immaterial labour‘ to refer to the labour of academics and students.

Marx never used the term ‘immaterial labour’. Obviously this should not deter us from using the term if it is a useful development of Marx’s critique of political economy, but in this case, it is not. Marx was aware of the term ‘immaterial labour’, but critical of it as a reified, liberal concept that contributes to class division. Those who use the term ‘immaterial labour’ to refer to the work of academia usually do so in a polemical, political way. In this sense it is a positive, fetish category, rather than the basis of a negative, critical standpoint. It offers nothing to the clarity of meaning that Marx provides with his own critique of labour and can be easily confused with the essential category of ‘abstract labour’. If labour can indeed be distinguished as ‘immaterial’, then following Marx, we might assume there are ‘immaterial commodities’, too, and the historical-materialist method is abandoned. Marx’s critique of the commodity form, value and labour are comprehensive and inclusive of what we might think of as material and immaterial and to start with ‘immaterial labour’ is to start from a position which is against Marx.

Of course, the ideas around ‘immaterial labour’ raised by Lazzaranto, Negri and others are interesting, but ultimately add nothing to a critical theory of commodity production as the basis of capitalist social relations.  For a concise and critical examination of the expression ‘immaterial labour’, see Haug (2009). For an expansive study of intellectual (not ‘immaterial’) and manual labour, see Sohn-Rethel (1978).

For our purposes in understanding the university itself as a means of production, the labour of students and academics is encapsulated by Marx when he states:

On the one hand all labour is, speaking physiologically, an expenditure of human labour-power, and in its character of identical abstract human labour, it creates and forms the value of commodities. On the other hand, all labour is the expenditure of human labour-power in a special form and with a definite aim, and in this, its character of concrete useful labour, it produces use-values. (Capital Vol. 1, Chapter 1)

To conceive all labour in its general (cf. ‘abstractnot immaterial) form is to begin to understand the role of labour in capitalist society.

10 thoughts on “The university is itself a means of production”

  1. These are great notes, Joss, thanks for sharing them. The description you make of the university as a means of production (here, of knowledge amongst other things) seems to me straightforwardly correct. I think the distinction you make between ‘immaterial’ and ‘abstract’ labour is important; I have also found more useful in the latter, although I need to develop a better understanding of the concept for myself before making too much use of it. I have been working with a distinction between exploitation and abstraction, with the latter being more totalising and penetrating; I’ve been less concerned about losing a materialist dialectic than losing sight of the fact that what passes for ‘immaterial’ labour is typically also materialised. But I think I may be working with a different conception of the material as well.

    My question is whether you see this as the overarching analysis, or part of a critical analysis. In other words, is the university equal to or reducible to a means of production of knowledge and nothing more or less? Is the university organised to produce nothing other than knowledge and, if so, would this be the knowledge that is formally recognised as such (the ‘knowledge’ that people tend to refer to as apparently certified through degrees, ‘transferable skills, assignments, etc.) or also the tacit knowledges, hidden curricula, self-knowledge, historical memory, etc.? And if the university is organised to produced nothing other than knowledge, do things other than production also occur within the relations of production, or are there relations that are non-productive relations (or non-exchange relations) within the order of the institution? What is the relationship between the organising principle of the means of production of an institution (or of education or science more specifically) and the nature and purpose of the institution itself; is this a determining relationship, a contingent one, an influential one, a contradictory one?

    I ask because I think the way we answer these questions is probably consequential for thinking about whether and how we position ourselves in relation to the work of the university.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      I have been working with a distinction between exploitation and abstraction, with the latter being more totalising and penetrating

      I agree. Postone makes this point arguing against traditional Marxist critiques that focus their critique on the market, class domination and exploitation. ‘Abstraction’ points to a determinate, impersonal ‘logic’ or structural imperative which is totalising: Capital as the Subject, rather than labour.

      ‘Immaterial labour’ as I understand it, usually refers to ‘knowledge workers’, creative industries and services. The way that Sohn-Rethel analyses intellectual and manual labour suggests that ‘immaterial’ is a liberal category which reinforces the separation of ‘head and hand’ when conceived as labour. It’s not that immaterial labour might typically be materialised but rather it doesn’t actually exist except in the worldview of liberal, bourgeois philosophy going back to Kant. Marx’s conception of labour already encompasses that which has been fetishised as ‘immaterial labour’.

      My question is whether you see this as the overarching analysis, or part of a critical analysis. In other words, is the university equal to or reducible to a means of production of knowledge and nothing more or less?

      I think that increasingly the production of knowledge is the determinate objective – the principle upon which the means of production is organised. We might test that by imagining a university where this product of labour is removed. What is left to replace it? Can it exist today?

      I think that if we agree that the purpose of higher education in capitalist society is the production of knowledge, then knowledge, more abstractly speaking, is value (capital). This connects back to Richard’s original blog post where he referred to ‘human capital’ i.e. the ‘knowledge worker’.

      However, even though the production of knowledge is the organising principle around which higher education is constructed, I don’t think this means that “tacit knowledges, hidden curricula, self-knowledge, historical memory, etc.” must inevitably be absent. Even when the university is “organised to produce nothing other than knowledge”, non-productive relations can indeed occur. Often! Which is why it can be such a wonderful environment to work, study and socialise in.

      So to answer your question, I think the organising principle of the means of production of an institution (an institution being a way to organise productive labour) and the actual experienced nature of the institution itself is, in terms of the overall trajectory, a determining relationship, but to the extent that the institution relies on labour (and not automated production), it will also be a contradictory and therefore contingent relationship.

      I also think it is better to analyse the university in the context of global capitalism to understand what is determinate and what is contingent.

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