Student as Producer (7)

See an introduction to this series of notes here.

7. Neary, Mike (2013) Student as Producer: a pedagogy for the avant-garde; or, how to revolutionary teachers teach? [v2] Paper presented at Walter Benjamin, Pedagogy and the Politics of Youth conference, London. [unpublished]

In the 2010 article of the same title, the avant-garde Marxism of Benjamin and Vgotsky is referred to as an “antidote to the dogmatic assumptions of traditional Marxism, as well as the psychologism and the positivism of empirical social science, both of which dominate current research into higher education.” (Neary 2010) This later 2013 ‘v2’ conference paper is an attempt to critique the ‘productivism’ which characterises traditional Marxism and from which even Benjamin and Vygotsky did not escape. Yet key to the work of Benjamin and Vygotsky and subsequently Neary is the transformation of the student into a radical subject, one who understands their central place and purpose in the process of knowledge production. In undertaking this, Neary concludes that

“an important aspect of the fabrication/construction of the radical subject lies in the reappropriation of ‘general social knowledge’: or, the recovery of ‘the idea of the University’, as a radically new form of social institution grounded in an historical and materialist pedagogy which can provide the basis for a revolutionary form of teaching.” (Neary 2013: 2)

He introduces Student as Producer as a project that works on a number of different levels:

  1. A model for curriculum development
  2. A framework for while institutional change
  3. The reinvention of the ‘idea of the university’ as a radical political project.

Outwardly, the project “appears quite mundane”, as “it involves embedding research and research-like teaching across all aspects of the undergraduate curriculum, so that students become part of the academic culture and practice of the institution.” (Neary 2013: 3)

As we have seen from earlier papers, the purpose of Student as Producer extends beyond the routine processes of university life. It is not confrontational but rather, a subversive project, a “negative critique” of higher education that exists within the context of a number of constraints:

  1. The labour contract
  2. Management structures
  3. Government regulation (QAA protocols) around student engagement
  4. External social, political and economic crises

Neary draws attention to the work of Benjamin, providing much more insight into the formulation of the original ideas behind Student as Producer. I will not reproduce the passages here, but needless to say, The Life of Students and Author as Producer remain key texts for a deep appreciation of Student as Producer, and although it would be going over old ground here, this 2013 conference paper is the clearest expression yet of the relevance of Benjamin to our current moment.

What is new to this paper is Neary’s critique of Benjamin and Vygotsky’s ‘productivism’. Writing the paper for a Benjamin conference, Neary reviews the work of other Benjamin scholars and concludes that while it can be

“rich and revealing… it tends to lack the avant-garde Marxist spirit that informs this crucial period of Benjamin’s work: with a tendency for taking on the melancholy and pessimistic characteristics for which Benjamin is renowned.” (Neary 2013: 14)

The latter half of the paper is devoted to an engagement with ‘avant-garde Marxists’ (“by which I mean Marxist scholarship that seeks to get beyond Marx through Marx”).

The work of Moishe Postone is introduced and highlighted for the way in which the concept of abstraction (i.e. non-empirical reality), rather than alienation, lies at the centre of his interpretation of Marx:

“This focus on the non-empirical aspect of Marx’s theory demonstrates the the violence of abstraction, as a real (im)material process of social mediation out of which emerge the repressive structures and institutions of capitalist modernity.” (Neary 2013: 16)

Postone undertakes a sustained critique of what he calls the “productivist paradigm” of “traditional Marxism”. By this he means the dominant version of Marxism that has affirmed labour (i.e the proletariat/working class) as the revolutionary subject. Postone’s critique is against this paradigm, arguing for a critique of labour in capitalism. Neary states that,

“he does this by a reconstruction of capitalist forms, including value, abstract labour and capital itself, to reveal them as the outcome of a very determinate set of social relations, grounded in the commodity form. These capitalist forms include the apparently independent structures through which capitalist modernity is regulated: money and the state. His conclusion is that post- capitalist communist society is not the realisation of labour, but its historical abolition/negation.” (Neary 2013: 16)

Postone does not have much to say about Benjamin, but Neary connects the work of both writers through Benjamin’s friend, Georg Lukacs, who Postone engages with at length in much of his work. The critical point that Neary draws out is that through Lukacs’ influence, Benjamin succumbs to the tendency of traditional Marxism to reify and fetishise the proletariat. Despite their advances on orthodox Marxism, even avant-garde Marxists of the early 20th century like Benjamin and Lukacs, saw revolution “in terms of class relations structured by market economy and private ownership of the means of production.” (Postone 2003: 82)

“Relations of domination are understood primarily in terms of class domination and exploitation. Within this general framework, capitalism is characterized by a growing structural contradiction between that society’s basic social relations (interpreted as private property and the market) and the forces of production (interpreted as the industrial mode of producing).

The unfolding of this contradiction gives rise to the possibility of a new form of society, understood in terms of collective ownership of the means of production and economic planning in an industrialized context – that is, in terms of a just and consciously regulated mode of distribution adequate to industrial production. The latter is understood as a technical process that, while used by capitalists for their particularistic ends, is intrinsically independent of capitalism; it could be used for the benefit of all members of society.” (Postone 2003: 82)

The error of this, argues Postone, is that it offers no explanation for the problems faced by Socialist planners of the 20th century and is forever “in danger of reinventing another form of labour-producing society in less mediated forms: more immediate, violent and terrorist.” (Neary 2013: 18)

Benjamin’s work in The Life of Students and Author as Producer is concerned with the process of production and the realisation of historical subjectivity through the consumer assuming the creative role of producer. Drawing his Marxism largely from his friend Lukacs, Benjamin, too, remains stuck in the productivist paradigm.

Postone argues that the subject of the capitalist mode of production is capital itself, the self-valorisation of value; leading to a series of “quasi-independent” processes which subsume all of social life. “Therefore, it is not that the proletariat must be realised; but, rather, that the capital relation in total must be abolished.” (Neary 2013: 19) Neary examines what was at the centre of Marx’s work and subsequently developed by Lukacs and Postone: the commodity-form. Despite the commodity-form usually being characterised as use-value and exchange-value (i.e. value), Neary states that for Postone, what is key to understanding and overcoming the commodity-form is “the immanent nature of the value relation within which use value and exchange value are integrated. Or, to put it another way: abstract labour is the substance of value which must exist in a concrete form as a use value.” (Neary 2013: 19)

Abstract labour exists as a “real abstraction”; that is, a “quasi-independent” abstract determinate force which has real, historical and material outcomes. The ‘logic’ of capital is a totalising logic whereby labour as the substance of value, takes on abstract forms that reduce humanity to a resource for capital, rather than the project itself.  Neary argues that,

“In capitalism human labour is essential for the valorisation process; however, in the process to increase productivity and avoid labour conflict, workers are expelled from work with their knowledge and capacity increasingly automated; this gives rise to intensification of work, unemployment, poverty and technological development; and forms of resistance, including the real possibility of a society of abundance rather than the logic of scarcity on which capitalism is based. Postone argues that the way in which work is organised is the logic of other quasi-independent structures that dominate and oppress workers, e.g., the Capitalist State.” (Neary 2013: 19)

The recurrent (i.e. permanent) contradiction and crisis of capitalism generates the possibility for the radical subject to emerge, “not as some intrinsic capacity that is inherent within the proletariat, but as a dynamic negative aspect of the capital relation.” (Neary 2013: 19)

“In a society where people have been controlled by the logic of production (Postone 1993: 284), it is likely that a new human emancipation will be a world that is not dominated by production, but a new form of human sociability with a new logic of social wealth. This will be political but the organisational/institutional forms have yet to be decided. Humanity can recover itself through different form of social wealth based on a different concept of usefulness/[uselessness] not defined within the capital relation (362).” (Neary 2013: 19)

The exact nature of  this “different form of social wealth” is unknown but likely to be discovered in the “‘latent potential’ (364) of the use value dimension, no longer constrained and shaped by the value dimension…’ not in a utopia of labour, but ‘disposable time’: non-working time not dominated by the logic of work (leisure) but through a communist concept of wealth and sociability (the social individual).” (Neary 2013: 20)

In light of this, Neary argues that the university can be reconsidered

“not as an autonomous reified institution, but as form of the social relations of capitalist production, whose real nature has emerged out of the crisis ridden and contradictory organisational principle on which it is based: the commodity-form. Using Postone, the University can be seen as a quasi-independent structure that dominates academic labour and students through the way in which it exists as a factory for the commodification of knowledge. The domination of this quasi-independent structure endures only to the extent that ‘the latent potential’ of the use value relation can be contained, to prevent commodified knowledge being re- functioned as accumulated general social knowledge appropriated by the academic labour and students who have produced it.” (Neary 2013: 25)

Neary points to an article I have written which attempts to show how the university has indeed become a quasi-independent structure gradually subsumed during the 19th and 20th centuries under the logic of capitalist valorisation; a complex expression of the capital relation in the form of the ‘industrial-military-academic complex’. Yet within and out of this context, the contradictions of the academy produce the opportunity for the production of knowledge in a non-alienated form; knowledge which ‘escapes’ the valorisation process of the academy and carries with it intrinsic use-value for the production of a commons.

Following his discussion of Postone, Neary focuses on the work of John Holloway who, like Postone, attempts to “undermine the productivist reading of Marx, while maintaining the centrality of labour as the organising principle of capitalist society. This is done by taking the value/capital relation rather than the relationship between classes as the starting point.” (Neary 2013: 20-21)

Whereas Neary draws on Postone to understand capital as an ‘abstract determinate logic’, he draws on Holloway’s “critical reinterpretation of the law of value… as a social theory of everything”. (Neary 2013: 21) Both writers, argues Neary, are similar in their negative conception of the commodity-form as expressing the “intrinsic, immanent, contradictory and antagonistic relation between use and exchange value” (ibid) With this understanding of the commodity-form, which Marx referred to as the basic ‘cell-form’ of capitalist society, Neary points to Holloway’s focus on the necessity and potential for struggle amidst the contradictions and antagonisms of social life. Whereas Postone identifies the problem through theory alone, Holloway provides a practical way forward, or as Neary states:

“In order to find an attempt to connect revolutionary theory with revolutionary practice through a reading of avant-garde Marxism we need to look elsewhere. [i.e. Holloway]” (Neary 2013: 20)

For Holloway, the working-class (i.e. the creative capacity of human labour to produce use-values) “exists as negation of capital… in the form of being denied” (i.e. as abstract labour quantified as exchange value) (ibid 21-22). While he shares much of Postone’s emphasis on the real presence and force of abstraction in capitalist society as well as his anti-productivist/anti-labour critical standpoint, Holloway asserts the negative (i.e. positive), destructive (i.e. creative) ‘logic’ that is also intrinsic in the “uncontrollable and uncontainable alien force that extends beyond the act of economic exchange to all aspects of social life”. (Neary 2013: 23)

In conclusion, Neary argues that

“Holloway and Postone offer powerful accounts of Marx’s revolutionary theory against the productivist paradigm. Writing on the edge of the dialectic, each has a tendency to privilege one side or the other: with Holloway focussing on the concrete aspect of ‘doing’ and Postone on the power and violence of abstraction. What neither of them can do, is resolve or overcome the contradiction in their writing, because this is not only a theoretical problem, it is always and everywhere intensely practical.” (Neary 2013: 24)

The final section of this conference paper reflects on this “intensely practical” problem.

“Student as Producer feels like an impossible project. Almost everything about the current situation makes it impossible, but it is that very impossibility that makes it so necessary. And even in the face of impossibility it feels like much has been achieved. More than could have been imagined. Notably, the fact that the title for an English University’s teaching and learning strategy is a ripped off slogan from a 20th century Marxist feels like something of a triumph.” (Neary 2013: 25)

Neary goes on to discuss Student as Producer in terms of a “series of techniques”: “Re-engineering the process of production”; the creation of “real networks and forms of association”; the “recovery of a moral and ethical principles as academic principles, and linking them to the bureaucratic processes”; and attempting to “astonish academics, students and administrators through a revelation of the radical history of the university.” He argues that we must “recognise, with a teacherly attitude, that all of these devices are not merely technical instruments but are derived out of a peculiar social, material and historical process which must be theorised.” (Neary 2013: 25) Out of this peculiar, contradictory, antagonistic context, Neary argues that other institutional forms will emerge as a result of struggle that are themselves likely to express the negation of the commodity-form.  Just as for Marx, capital contains the seed of its overcoming, so the institutional form of the modern university as an expression of capital also contains the revolutionary potential  of accumulated knowledge which resists and exceeds the current institutional form of higher education.

“The substance which deconstructs or melts this institutional form is the creative doing of academic labour, a form of production based on the rage of academics and students against the capitalist machine; or as Holloway might put it the moment of life against the living death of capitalist production.

In these ways the university is a form of the crisis, which is part of a much wider social political and economic crisis, the outcome of which is far from certain. What happens inside of the University, including Student as Producer, depends on the outcome of this crisis. We should be in no doubt about the increasing economic and political violence that will be inflicted, is already being inflicted, as the crisis intensifies. During this time academics are being/will be forced to assess their own position and to make a choice…

This is a condition in which nothing is fixed: new revolutionary forms are already being cast, even if they might not appear revolutionary at the time.” (Neary 2013: 26-7)

The latter 2013 conference paper represents the most developed theoretical statement about Student as Producer and also reflects on the way Student as Producer has been practised both inside formal higher education and outside. since 2007. Starting out from the work of Benjamin, Neary has now found a way to go beyond the productivism implicit in ‘Student as Producer’ and the helplessness and potential dangers of hypostatising the ‘real’, the concrete, without a full, critical understanding of the “violence of abstraction”. There are a number of points that we can distil from this paper with regards to the suitability of the worker co-operative as an organisation form for a pedagogy based on Student as Producer.

  • Early avant-garde Marxists, Vygotsky and Benjamin, provide the pedagogical foundations for Student as Producer, which Neary has developed. With this paper, he argues with reference to Postone and Holloway’s work, that the ‘productivism’ of their Marxist theory should be the subject of critique in developing Student as Producer. This implies that the organisational form for Student as Producer should itself be anti-productivist or post-productivist. A worker co-operative would have to reflect on how this redefines ‘work’ and how the organisation can be constituted in a way that works towards abolishing exchange-value while asserting use-value as the form of social wealth derived from the concrete labour of its members.  It would be a worker co-operative that sought to abolish capitalist work. Jossa and Egan’s writing on Labour Managed Firms are worth returning to.
  • The organisational form need to support ways to reconnect intellectual and manual labour and theory and praxis. Learning should take place through ‘practical tasks’, i.e. research-based learning that is grounded in historical and material conditions.
  • The distinction and divide between teachers and students should be addressed through a reconfiguration of the division of labour so as to ensure that both roles contribute according to individual capacity and need in the process of knowledge production. This does not deny that there are people who can teach and people who can learn from others, but the organisational form can constitute each as ‘scholars’ (i.e. members) whose needs and capacities are each recognised as part of the knowledge production process.
  • Student as Producer is a ZPD and the organisational form should be constituted so as to protect the ZPD and create a ‘safe’ space for members to contribute creatively.
  • The organisational form should support and express a number of reflexive techniques: “Re-engineering the process of production”; the creation of “real networks and forms of association”; the “recovery of a moral and ethical principles as academic principles, and linking them to the bureaucratic processes”; and attempting to “astonish academics, students and administrators through a revelation of the radical history of the university.”
  • In his notebooks, Marx wrote that “Production, then, is also immediately consumption, consumption is also immediately production. Each is immediately its opposite.” How can we understand the relationship between production and consumption?
  • Are production and labour synonymous? We need to be clear about the nature of labour and therefore the specific nature of production. As Hudis has shown, Marx said that ‘labour’ and its products would still exists post-capitalism, but they are non-alienated, not mediated by the abstractions of labour and value. How can an understanding of ‘indirect’ vs ‘direct labour’ help us re-conceive post-capitalist labour i.e. its “latent potential”?

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