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


Through research I have been doing on US higher education, it is clear to me that there have been at least four, often concurrent processes of valorisation, in which universities were increasingly subsumed into the capital relation, always at the encouragement of some academics and the opposition of others:

  1. Land Grants (late 19th c.), which provided federal funding for the establishment of the first research universities. Attached to this was the practice of academic consultancy to industry;
  2. The patenting of research (early 20th c.), whereby universities hesitantly and gradually, over several decades, internalised the idea and processes of commercialising research, culminating in the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act;
  3. WWII and Cold War funding (mid 20th c.). The establishment of government funding agencies and the military-industrial-academic complex;
  4. Venture Capital (mid 20th c.), as a model of issuing capital to transform publicly-funded research into commodities.

Overall, this has been a gradual process of turning academic labour power into “productive labour” i.e. a form of valorisation. It should be no surprise that the experiment of neo-liberalism has led to the marketisation of higher education, nor that efforts to resist this have been largely impotent. Following Postone, I think that attempts to resist the valorisation of higher education so as to restore an earlier configuration – when the university was not widely perceived as an engine for growth – are misguided.

When critically approaching the university as a means of production for the valorisation of capital, an emancipatory effort might focus instead on re-appropriating the means of knowledge production through efforts to control the substance of value: the labour process. This, I think, would require new models of democratic higher education organised through the co-operation of academic labour.

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

However, as I have previously written, overcoming the mode of production (i.e. ‘capitalism’) does not necessarily follow taking control of the means of production (so-called ‘socialist’ states are evidence of this), but it is surely only through achieving a democratic, co-operative control of the means, that the mode of production can be overcome. Historically, this suggests that efforts to resist the mode of production require both control over the means of production as well as a penetrating critique of the socially dominant mode of production.


In his article, History and Helplessness, Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism, Moishe Postone discusses the notion of resistance in light of the historical development of capitalism.

The notion of resistance frequently expresses a deeply dualistic worldview that tends to reify both the system of domination and the idea of agency. It is rarely based on a reflexive analysis of possibilities for fundamental change that are both generated and suppressed by a dynamic heteronomous order. In that sense it lacks reflexivity. It is an undialectical category that does not grasp its own conditions of possibility; that is, it fails to grasp the dynamic historical context of which it is a part. (Postone, 2006: 108)

This passage implies 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.

Within the framework of the interpretation I have been presenting, overcoming capitalism entails far more than overcoming private ownership of the means of production, however important that might be. It also entails getting beyond (overcoming, not abolishing) the structuring abstract/ concrete forms of capitalism. The analysis of the commodity and capital suggests that an important aspect of that overcoming would be the development of a different form of universality, one that could encompass difference while remaining general, one that overcomes the one-sidedness of both abstract universality and concrete particularity. (Postone, 2012: 30)


Postone’s analysis of capitalism, based on his reading of Marx, is useful to us for a number of reasons: 1

  1. Postone shows that capital is a historical mode of production, which structures all social life. It is dynamic and heteronomous.
  2. As the ‘logic’ of all social life, capital is determinate and appears as a historical necessity. 2 As such, capital renders a feeling of powerlessness and contingency is limited to processes of reform or amelioration within the constraints imposed by capital. The ‘achievements’ of, for example, social democracy, suggest to us a degree of historical indeterminacy and the possibility of freedom, yet they consistently occur within the constraints imposed by capital. For Postone, actual historical indeterminacy (i.e. freedom) can only be realised in a post-capitalist social form of life.
  3. An immanent, dialectical critique of capital as a form of social relations (not a material thing as conventionally understood), reveals that what appears as an abstract, mysterious, governing totality, is essentially contradictory and it is the internal tensions of its ‘logic’, which offer the historical basis for overcoming capitalism. The possibility of overcoming capitalism lies within the contradictions of capitalism itself i.e. within the commodity form.
  4. Anti-capitalist efforts typically fetishise the abstract logic of capital in an effort to perceive some thing to oppose e.g. American hegemony, the State, Bankers. Postone considers this turn from the abstract to the concrete as “an expression of a deep and fundamental helplessness, conceptually as well as politically.”

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.

  1. I am drawing from a number of Postone’s articles, but in this case, especially History and Helplnessness
  2. As the saying goes: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

6 thoughts on “Helplessness”

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