What is ‘academic labour’?

If the university is a means for the production of knowledge, determined by capital, the mode of production, I also need to be clear about the role and nature of labour within the contemporary university.

The term ‘academic labour‘ is widely used, but I have not found an adequate analysis of its form and content in the context of a university in a capitalist society. ‘Academic labour’ is usually synonymous with ‘work within an academic context’ or ‘work undertaken by someone called an academic’. This is not surprising. Discussing labour more broadly, Neary and Dinerstein (2002: 249) have argued that, “both the understanding and the critique have been undermined to such an extent that labour has been abandoned as an object of critical analysis or a subject on which to reconsider the project for social emancipation.”

What then, is my overall purpose of an analysis of ‘academic labour’? Unlike most discussion around academic labour, my primary intention is not to improve or fight for academic labour but rather to abolish the capitalist form of academic labour and out of this produce a new form of university. This follows the reading of Marx that writers such as Postone and Heinrich offer, both of whom understand capitalism to constitute a “social totality under the conditions of capitalist commodity production” (Heinrich, 2005) From this critical standpoint, labour, as the source and substance of capital’s value, should not be reified. Capitalist labour i.e. the specific, historical form of labour determined by the capitalist mode of production, should be negated, abolished, and overcome. In doing so, we transition to a different form  – a difference paradigm – of social knowledge production and exchange, determined by a new form of social wealth. A new social science. 1

Of course, struggle over the contemporary role and conditions of academic labour remains vitally important in providing us with space to critique academic labour more fundamentally, but we should recognise that circumstances for academic labour are not improving and that a fundamentally different form of critique is required.

Below are my notes towards a better understanding of what characterises ‘academic labour’ in a capitalist society. I am trying to think in general, systemic terms. There are no doubt exceptions to what I am discussing here but those exceptions are not characteristic of the general social process of academic labour.

The contract

An ‘academic’ is a person who is employed by an organisation (usually a university) on an ‘academic contract’. This contract is distinguished from non-academic contracts within a university, often referred to as ‘professional staff’, ‘support staff’, ‘administrative staff’, and so on. The primary responsibilities of a person employed as an academic are a mixture, to a lesser or greater degree, of teaching and research.

The detail of academic contracts differs between institutions, but within a single institution, the contract for a particular grade of academic will be standardised and on the whole not deviated from. That is to say, for example, the ‘Senior Lecturer’ grade academic is a category applied to many individuals employed at that level of work. The employment contract is a form of abstraction. Within the structure of the university, ‘Joss Winn’ is a ‘Senior Lecturer’, and in that respect, the contractual expectations of me are the same as any other Senior Lecturer. Therefore, a ‘Senior Lecturer’ is a way of determining an equivalence between individuals employed at that grade. It is rare (and inconsequential here) that academics are pro-actively ‘head hunted’ for their specific attributes and provided with a personalised employment contract. More often, a vacancy is identified and via an application process, a person is selected to fulfil the abstract role of ‘Senior Lecturer’. From an institutional point-of-view, academic labour at every grade and across grades is abstracted both quantitatively and qualitatively, such that we can say that “The University of X has 300 Senior Lecturers, 200 Readers, 400 Lectures, and 100 Professors.” The management of these contracts is undertaken by a ‘Human Resources’ department. To paraphrase Werner Bonefeld, under capitalism, humanity has become the resource, rather than the project.

The wage

The academic contract is an agreement between the university and the individual for the exchange of productive work for a wage. In almost every case, the individual needs the wage in order for them, and often their family, to subsist. The academic is ‘free’ to seek employment elsewhere, but they are not free from the necessity of a wage. Similarly, the university is ‘free’ to employ the person they deem most suitable for the vacancy (from the limited pool of applicants), but they are not free from the necessity of requiring labour. The wage is therefore a necessary exchange between the university and the individual. Academic labour must be sold and academic labour must be bought.

Labour-power and labour

A university purchases academic labour which an individual sells to the university in exchange for a contracted wage. Before we examine what is being sold, we might ask what is actually being purchased? Conventionally, we might say that certain skills, attributes, and human potential are being purchased via the wage. Joss Winn is employed because he is skilled at X i.e. he can do X. The recruitment process defines and determines what is being purchased in concrete terms: An academic is required to undertake teaching and/or research in a specific discipline. The academic should be of the Senior Lecturer type. The post is advertised with a ‘Job Description’ and ‘Person Specification’. Applications are initially reviewed and a smaller number of applicants are interviewed. At each stage the nature of the labour being purchased is clarified i.e. the potential application of the labour is made more concrete. Therefore, we move from an generalisation of labour as human potential to concrete attributes of applied labour.

When Marx referred to labour as a commodity that is bought and sold through the wage, he was specifically referring to ‘labour power’, i.e. creative human potential, which is applied as ‘labour’. As Fine & Saad-Filho (2010: 20-21) state:

The most important distinguishing feature of capitalism is that labour power becomes a commodity. The capitalist is the purchaser, the worker is the seller, and the price of labour power is the wage. The worker sells labour power to the capitalist, who determines how that labour power should be exercised as labour to produce particular commodities.

In this way, the individual exchanges their human ‘labour power’ for a wage, and the required application of ‘labour power’ as ‘labour’ is defined by the employment contract. It is my potential to undertake labour (labour power) and the specific application of that potential within the given context that I work that we refer to as ‘labour’. I may change the nature of my employment and sell my labour power which is applied through a different contractual obligation e.g. prior to becoming an academic, I was a technologist. On changing roles within the university, my labour power did not change upon the signing of my new contract, only the way that it should be applied as a form of academic labour rather than the labour required of a technologist on a non-academic contract.

The duality of labour

In a capitalist society, most people must sell their capacity to work for a wage in order for them and their dependants to subsist. We can assume that people work because they have this necessity for a wage. People are compelled to sell their labour. I’m not going to go into detail about why they are compelled to sell their labour. Here, I want to examine the form of the labour that is being sold as a necessity, in particular, ‘academic labour’. Conventionally, most people, and certainly most academics, think of their ‘work’, rather than their ‘labour’. The term, ‘labour’ conjures up a physiological action often associated with ‘manual work’ e.g. farm labourers, construction site labourers. This ‘manual work’ is often distinguished from ‘intellectual work’ or ‘creative work’. However, what unites all of these conceptions of work is their necessity and that something is sold for a wage. As discussed above, that common thing that is sold as a commodity is labour power which is contractually applied as labour. However, our conception of labour does not end there. Marx showed that labour under capitalism is comprised of two aspects: ‘Concrete labour’ and ‘Abstract labour’.

Concrete labour

Concrete labour is the physiological work that individuals do. As I sit and write these notes on a Wednesday morning at my place of employment, I am clearly performing this physiological, concrete, ‘real’ form of labour, for which I am seemingly being paid. Just as the farm labourer on the outskirts of the city is seemingly being paid for their concrete labour, too. On one level our concrete labour is different, since I am sitting and typing and the farm labourer is tending to animals or crops. There are intellectual and manual aspects to both of our work. We are both required to think about what we are doing. As I said before, as a critical category, ‘labour’ has little to do with the content (intellectual or manual) of the undertaking, but rather its configuration or form determined by the capitalist mode of production.

So, while the content of our labour looks and indeed is, on one level, different, it is also the same in that the application of our labour, undertaken contractually for our employer, performs useful work. The measure of how useful an individual’s work might be is another matter. In general, we can assume that if people remain in employment, they are undertaking ‘concrete labour’ which overall is deemed useful by their employer and appears to meet the expectations of their agreed contract. However, we shall see that performing useful work is not enough to warrant continued employment.

In summary, one aspect of labour (and the most intuitive understanding of ‘labour’) is that it is a concrete action performed by people that produces useful outcomes, regardless of whether those outcomes are material or immaterial. 2. The other aspect of labour in capitalist society is its abstract form.

Abstract labour

Just as I have noted that academic labour, like all labour, can be discussed more abstractly in terms of the institutional employment contract, on a wider, social level, academic labour is part of a social process of production and exchange.

Abstract labour is the social reduction of individual concrete labour to ‘value’. In order to determine the value of the labour commodity the labouring of an academic must also be understood more abstractly within society as the equivalent of other forms of individual labour. This equivalence is realised when the product of that individual labour is exchanged (usually and eventually for money). If the labour does not produce anything that is ultimately exchanged, then it is not specifically capitalist labour. For example, I might ‘labour’ usefully in my garden, but the results of that are enjoyed for my own pleasure rather than exchanged, so it is not labour as I am addressing it in these notes. Similarly, I might cook my family a meal, but that cooking is not labour that produces a product or renders a service intended for exchange, so while it may require ‘work’ or ‘labour’, it is not capitalist labour. What uniquely identifies the commodity of labour in capitalist society is that the purpose of the labour is to produce an object of use or render a service deemed useful that is undertaken primarily for exchange. It is this objective of exchange that determines whether the labour has both abstract and concrete qualities. As Heinrich states: “Abstract labour is a relation of social validation that is constituted in exchange.” (2012: 50)

Identifying this abstract aspect of labour is not a mental abstraction in the way that I am called a ‘Senior Lecturer’ along with hundreds of other people, but rather a ‘real abstraction’ derived from actual human behaviour. Abstract labour is what makes all labour common in terms of how it produces value. It is the substance by which value is determined in exchange.

Value forming abstract labour is therefore a reduction of different types of concrete labour: It is a reduction of labour to socially necessary labour time. All labour throughout history occurs in time, but the value of capitalist labour is measured socially by time. As an average, this measurement of productivity changes constantly. It is also a reduction of various use values to social use values – “use values for others” (Heinrich quoting Marx, 2012: 51); and finally it is a reduction of labour to an average level of skill which also determines its value. In this regard, the labour of a Professor should realise more value than a Senior Lecturer over the same amount of time.

The commodity

On its own, concrete labour whose product is not exchanged, creates only a ‘use value’. Such a product is, of course, useful to the person who laboured over it, but this private form of labour does not constitute the mass of social labour in capitalist society. Concrete labour whose product is exchanged in a social process realises value in the exchange process, ultimately in the form of money which acts as a universal equivalence of all value. The substance of that value is therefore not the individual, concrete labour, but rather the abstract aspect of labour purchased by a wage with the intention of exchanging its useful outcome. That outcome is a ‘commodity’ and is characterised as having a ‘use value’, and an ‘exchange value’. Only when the commodity produced by labour is exchanged does it produce ‘value’. A product of labour may be useful, but it cannot be called a commodity unless it is intended for exchange and is therefore a value-producing product or service. Whether a real, tangible object is produced or a service rendered, both are commodities if they are exchanged. In that sense, commodities (material, intellectual, products and services) are values with a common, “crystalised” substance: abstract labour.

Productive and unproductive labour

Does academic labour produce commodities? It sounds strange to think of the results of the outcomes of teaching and research in this way. Conventionally, we think of commodities as goods that are bought and sold and in the financial markets, commodities range from crude oil to silver to sugar, but appear nothing like the immediate outcomes of academic labour.

A way to determine whether academic labour produces commodities or not is to examine whether it is ‘productive labour’ or ‘unproductive labour’.

From the standpoint of my private, concrete labour that produces something useful (a ‘use value’), I consider my labour to be productive. I cook a meal or mend my bike and I can personally say that my labour has been ‘productive’. However, from the standpoint of the capitalist production process, which aims to produce value (‘surplus value’ in the form of profit), such labour is ‘unproductive’. Yes, my cooking of a meal and mending of my bike might ensure that I subsist and can therefore arrive at work and perform my academic labour, but I only have a bike and food in my cupboards because I have sold my academic labour as a commodity in the first place in order to buy food and transport. In themselves, so-called ‘labour’ such as cooking food for oneself and repairing one’s bike does not constitute the social mode of production. As Heinrich states: “Whether my labor is productive is not dependent upon the character of the use value produced, but upon whether I produce a commodity that also contains surplus value.” (2012: 122) Labour is therefore considered ‘productive’ if it takes place within a production process that produces value (‘surplus value’) and as we have seen such value is produced through the exchange of commodities, which are ‘containers’ of ‘crystalised’ abstract labour.

The question remains: Does academic labour (generally speaking, the activities of teaching and research), produce commodities? Or put another way, is it ‘productive labour’? The nature of teaching and research differs across different disciplines. The every-day work of an English lecturer is not exactly the same as the work of researcher at CERN and both differ again from the work of a Prof. of Contemporary Dance. However, to distinguish between the specificity of the daily routines of each type of academic is to focus on the content of their labour rather than its form. If we return to the form of academic labour, being determined by the sale of labour power as a commodity for a wage that is applied as labour as agreed by contract, then we can say that the form of labour of each respective academic is the same. Each individual is paid to produce use-values i.e. new knowledge usually expressed most immediately in the form of articles and other media. As a use-value, that new knowledge is ultimately exchanged in various ways: it may be taught to students in a classroom, it may be published in a journal or book, it may be ‘transferred’ to industry, etc. If the use-values that academics produce were not eventually exchanged, there would be no benefit to society, no ‘knowledge economy’, and no justification of higher education as an ‘engine for economic growth’. Sharing knowledge is not intrinsically a capitalist activity, but sharing knowledge within a society determined by the capitalist mode of production is invariably ‘productive labour’ resulting in the production of commodities and therefore value.

not only material products but services, insofar as they are sold, are commodities. In a capitalist theater, the actors are therefore just as much “productive laborers” as steelworkers who work in a capitalist steel mill. Whether or not a particular article is “really” useful for the reproduction of society also does not play any role in determining its character as a commodity. A luxury yacht, a video commercial, or tanks are all commodities if they find a buyer. And if these are produced under capitalist conditions, the labor expended during their production is “productive labor.” (Heinrich, 2012: 122)

If the majority of wage labour in capitalist societies is productive labour, what characterises unproductive labour? Heinrich shows that the sale of the labour-power commodity for a wage does not automatically mean that the labour will be productive. He gives the example of a restaurant owner who employs a private cook. The restaurant owner pays a wage to the cook, but the product of the cooking, although useful, is not then sold on, but rather consumed by their employer. With this example, Heinrich highlights how the wage for the cook is money which is spent, whereas the wage for cooks at his restaurant is money which is advanced, i.e. the money paid as a wage at the restaurant is only paid with the expectation of producing more money through the sale of food to diners. It is the money advanced to run the restaurant and make a profit which allows the owner to spend his surplus on employing a private cook. The restaurant cooks produce commodities (‘use-values’ + ‘exchange values’), whereas the private cook ‘merely’ produces a use-value.

We can understand academic labour in the same way. Is the wage that we are paid spent or advanced by our institutions? Is our labour intended to produce use-values for exchange so as to produce surplus value? Is our wage full compensation for every minute of our work or is the intention that the money advanced via our wage is less than the true value of our work, such that a surplus can at some point be made? The question comes down to whether academics are exploited (i.e. they are paid less than the value they produce). If academics are exploited, then our wage must be money advanced so as to produce surplus value and that value can only be produced through the exchange (i.e. sale) of commodities which we produce.

exploitation does not mean a particularly bad or miserable state of affairs, but that workers create a larger sum of value than that which they receive as wages. (Heinrich, 2012: 120)

It is perhaps through an analysis of exploitation that more common discussions around the conditions of academic labour can be combined with the type of analysis I am attempting here. However, a focus on the conditions of academic labour should not be confused with Marx’s category of exploitation, which is solely concerned with the question of whether the wage is spent or advanced, whether the labour is unproductive or productive and whether it produces merely use-values or surplus value. I think most people would agree that in this sense academic labour is productive labour.

Subsumption

A final category that I want to consider in these notes on academic labour is the extent to which the work of academics is subsumed by the capitalist mode of production. This question asks how integrated is academic labour into the capitalist valorisation process? Do we exist on the fringe? Is there anything left of our early guild-form of labour? Are we still undertaking a form of labour that is yet to be fully subsumed by capital? This also asks the question: As the institutional form of academic labour, is the university a means of production for capital?

Marx and later writers use the categories of ‘formal subsumption’ and ‘real subsumption’ under capital, when addressing such questions. These categories relate to the method and extent of the exploitation of labour and therefore the value such exploitation produces. Formal subsumption is the basis for real subsumption so we should look at it first.

Formal subsumption refers to the change whereby people ‘decide’ (usually out of necessity) to go to work for a wage rather than work for themselves and draw from the surplus of goods or money they make. When we work for a wage under capitalist conditions (and ‘wages’ only exist under capitalism), the person, people, organisation (‘the capitalist’) paying the wage expects to generate a surplus on the money advanced as a wage. As we saw above, if the money was simply spent on paying for labour without expectation of a greater return, value would not be produced and the business would collapse without being extended loans, grants, charity, etc. In its simplest form, wage-labour therefore refers to the formal subsumption of labour under capital. The value created by this labour is ‘absolute surplus value’ in that the profit made is simply whatever the capitalist can make above what they paid out in the production process. Because the costs of capital are relatively fixed over a given period, the main variable is the price of labour. A way of ensuring that the labour is ‘cheaper’, is to make the person work longer for the same wage. This method has its limits due to the number of hours in day, the need for rest and, of course, the resistance that workers have shown to increasing their hours of employment.

Real subsumption refers to the next stage in the subsumption of labour under capital. In many countries, employment laws won through the struggle of labour, limit the profitabilty of formal subsumption. Those limits are implicitly understood and so real subsumption becomes the default method of exploiting labour by capital.  This latter form of subsumption produces ‘relative surplus value’ and is tied to the productivity of labour and its overall impact on the cost of subsistence, the price of wages and the relative amount of surplus value that can be generated without correspondingly increasing the nominal wage (i.e. money exchanged for labour). Real subsumption points to the fact that real wages, (i.e.purchasing power), can rise and fall, relative to the productivity of labour and therefore the amount of surplus value produced is also relative to both the nominal and real wage, the cost of fixed capital, the productivity of labour, etc. What this means is that even when the standard of living increases, the exploitation of labour can also be increasing. Heinrich (2012: 120) explains:

As an effect of the increase in productivity, a rise in the standard of liv­ing of the working class has accompanied an increase of the surplus value appropriated by the capitalist. A decline in the value of labor-power si­multaneous to an increase of the surplus value produced by individual labor-power means that the rate of surplus value s/v, and with it the ex­ploitation of labor-power, has increased. Increased exploitation (meaning that a greater portion of the workday consists of surplus labor) and an increased standard of living for the working class are therefore not mutu­ally exclusive…. The rate of exploitation is not mea­sured by the standard of living, but by the rate of surplus value. It is quite possible that a rise in the standard of living and shortening of labor-time accompanies an increase in surplus value and the rate of surplus value.

Again, this suggests that a struggle over the conditions and benefits of academic labour, while very important, does not necessarily entail an overcoming of the determinate logic of the form of that labour (i.e. concrete and abstract labour). The capitalist mode of production and its sole purpose to produce surplus value, can continue, at least periodically, even when concessions are made to workers and the conditions of life seem to be improving. It is during periods of crisis that the limits of the real subsumption of labour under capital are revealed. The results of efforts to improve the conditions of academic labour will remain transient, forever subject to constraint, roll-back and re-configuration, all the time labour is subsumed under capitalism.

Concluding notes

What I think these notes show is that ‘academic labour’ is an illusion. It is a distinction that refers to the content of labour, rather than its form. It is a term that is reified as something concrete and particular – something special, and from this standpoint ‘academic labour’ becomes something we struggle for, rather than against. Adopting this approach, the feeling of helplessness can become overwhelming.

If, rather, we focus our critique on the form of academic labour, we find that an academic contract or a non-academic contract refers to the same dual qualities of labour: commodity-producing concrete and abstract labour. By focusing on the form of labour, rather than its content, we can only critique it rather than reify it. What is there to reify when we uncover the capitalist mode of production and the inhuman role and purpose of labour?

To focus on the form of labour, rather than its content, unites all wage workers in solidarity rather than setting us against each other in terms of skills, experience, opportunity, achievements and recognition. Such a critique of ‘academic labour’ can only lead to the negation of academic labour, first conceptually, and then, through further critique and struggle, in practice towards a different form of social wealth, which is not driven by the imperative of the production of value at all costs.

Form and content: Simon Clarke’s ‘State, Class Struggle, and the Reproduction of Capital’

A few weeks ago, I posted a summary of Postone’s Notes on the German Reaction to ‘Holocaust’. What has always impressed me about Postone’s analysis in that article is how he argues against a functionalist explanation of the holocaust and argues for the need to adopt a dialectical method which aims to reveal the way that the abstract nature of the commodity form is fetishised in the personification of the Jew. As a result, the power and threat of capital was, he argues, given a biological interpretation identified with Jews, who became the real, concrete victims of a historical form of anti-capitalism (i.e. anti-semitism).

Methodologically, Simon Clarke’s approach in State, Class Struggle and the Reproduction of Capital, is very similar to Postone’s. Both writers examine their subjects in terms of the duality of the commodity form: abstraction and concreteness; value and use-value; the form of the state and its political content; the abstraction of International Jewry and the personification of capital in the Jew. For Clarke, “questions of form are more fundamental than questions of content” and for Postone, it is vital to understand “the distinction between what modern capitalism is and the way it appears.” Both writers deem a retreat into the concrete as misguided as it misunderstands capital and its contradictions. Consequently, opponents of capital frequently experience a demoralised sense of political impotency – a sense of helplessness. At the other extreme, this fetishisation of the concrete can result in the horrors of holocaust.

Postone:

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.

Clarke:

The need to mobilise resistance to reactionary governments has led many on the left to acquire a renewed faith in the parliamentary system, seeking to democratise working-class parties and to broaden their appeal in order to secure electoral victory and a reversal of past defeats. But such a response is to focus on the content of politics at the expense of its form. For many of us the lesson of the 1960s and 1970s was precisely that questions of form are more fundamental than questions of content.

For both writers, a dialectical approach which reveals the fetishised forms of capital is fundamental to their respective critiques. Just as Postone argues the need for “qualitative specificity” in order to understand the relationship between anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish prejudice and Nazism, Clarke also argues for an understanding of the state which sees beyond its surface appearance as a neutral, autonomous, administrative apparatus, to reveal its essential characteristics, rooted in class struggle, labour and the capitalist mode of production. In this way, Clarke’s method of analysis is complementary to Postone who limits his otherwise powerful analysis of anti-Semitism to commodity fetishism and does not seek to undertake an analysis of the German state and what Clarke considers the state’s “essential” class character.

Clarke examines the state from the point of view of its historical re-production through class struggle. As an abstract social totality, the capitalist mode of production creates an antagonistic relationship with the working class and this gave rise to the historical development of the state, which exists to help regulate labour for the purposes of capital.

What currently interests me about this approach to analysing the state is that it clearly identifies the state’s role in regulating the capital-labour relation for the purpose of the reproduction of capital and therefore its own self-reproduction. At the same time, it reveals the contingency of the capital-labour-state relationship which produces class struggle and the possibility of agency.

More specifically, it provides an analytical framework for examining the historical role of the state in the development of higher education and the various initiatives aimed at the valorisation of scientific research (e.g. land grants, patents, consultancy, public funding, venture capital). Whereas some writers refer to the ‘triple helix’ of state, industry and university relations, while others refer to the ‘iron triangle’ or the ‘military-industrial-academic complex’, none of these common analytical frameworks offers an adequate analysis of the capital relation, of which the state, military, higher education and industry are historically developed forms.

Using Clarke’s approach to the critique of the capitalist state provides us with a more adequate framework and methodological approach for understanding the recent subversions of and opposition to capital’s mode of production in higher education. With this approach, the ‘recursive public’ (Kelty, 2008) of Open Access, Open Data, Open Source, Open Science, etc. can be understood as a form of class struggle for control over the means of production in the face of the overwhelming imperatives of the capitalist mode of production. In doing so, such an analysis also underlines the limits of such a struggle which appeals to the ‘public good’ and parliamentary representation as a method of achieving its aims. On the other hand, the apparent success of Open Source, Open Access, etc. points to real potential for the socialisation of science and democratic control over the means of knowledge production: an ‘actually existing social science’.

Clarke’s article is structured in eight parts, which I attempt to summarise below.

Introduction

Clarke distinguishes his approach from previous analyses of the state. The state is not simply a “mere tool of capital” nor a “neutral institution standing outside and above the class struggle.” A major weakness of previous analyses of the state is that they have oscillated between being extremely abstract and formalistic and extremely concrete and empirical. There has been a failure to integrate form and content. This has both theoretical and political implications. “The state cannot be derived conceptually.” The article examines how the state is derived historically from class struggle.

The Problem of the State

The state is not peculiar to capitalism. “It is an institution common, in different forms, to all class societies.” The state is separate from the exploiting class. The problem of the state is that the concept of the ‘state’ is treated at the same level of abstraction as the concept of ‘class’. The problem, therefore, is how the state is both a class state but appears institutionally separate from the capitalist class.

“It is the problem of explaining how a form of class rule can appear in the fetishised form of a neutral administrative apparatus, just as the rule of capital in production appears in the fetishised form of a technical coordinating apparatus. The apparent neutrality is not an essential feature of the state, it is rather a feature of the fetishised form in which the rule of capital is effected through the state.”

Understanding the state is something that must be derived from an analysis of class struggles surrounding the reproduction of capital, rather than being derived from the surface forms of appearance of capital. “The essential feature of the state is its class character; its autonomy is the surface form of appearance of its role in the class struggle.” The concept of ‘class’ and the concept of ‘state’ have to be developed at different levels of abstraction.

The Autonomy of the State

In this section, Clarke argues against three different assertions that the state is essentially autonomous: 1) the state represents the general interests of capital; 2) the state is an abstraction of force; 3) the state is an abstraction of the commodity form.

He quickly dismisses the first assertion, referring to Marx’s critique of Hegel:

The ‘general interest’ of capital as something standing outside the particular interests of particular capitals does not exist as a condition for the state. It is rather the result of a particular resolution of the conflicts between particular capitals and of the contradiction between capital and the working class.

He regards the second assertion to be false, since the state does not have a monopoly on the use of violence. He regards the force which reproduces capitalist social relations of production on a daily basis as capital, existing as a social totality “that cannot be reduced to one of its forms.”

Although expressed in property rights and enforced by law, the social relations of production are not constituted and reproduced by the threat of state violence; rather, the social reproduction of capital and of the working class is the other side of the material reproduction of society. Thus, workers can violate capitalist property rights by occupying a factory, by liberating supermarkets, or by burning down banks. But this does not transform capitalist social relations of production; for capital is a social relation that exists as a totality and that cannot be reduced to one of its forms. Capitalist property is founded not on the rule of law or on the supposed state monopoly of the means of violence, but on capitalist social relations of production. … While it may be true that under capitalism, as in all class societies, the state codifies property rights and regulates the use of force, it is by no means the case that the state constitutes property rights or monopolises the use of force.

Clarke regards the third assertion as a confusion between the abstract character of the commodity form (i.e. that social relations between people appear as relations between things), and the abstract character of the state (i.e. the relations between apparently free and equal commodity producers). Adopting this view, makes the state appear neutral and its class character as non-essential. In this view, its class character is contingent, rather than essential. However, Clarke regards the essential feature of the state to be its class character and its apparent autonomy as “a characteristic of the surface forms in which its subordination to capital appears.”

The Necessity of the State

Reflecting on earlier debates about the state, Clarke asks whether the reproduction of capital necessitates a state or instead, “is capital, in principle, self-reproducing?”

Drawing on Marx, he argues that capital is self-reproducing. I regard this as a key passage in his article:

The conditions for the self-reproduction of capital are a sufficient degree of development of the forces of production, that is the historical basis of capitalist social relations, on the one had, and the subordination of the individual to the social relations of capitalist production, on the other. This subordination is possible, once the capitalist mode of production is established, on the basis of purely ‘economic’ mechanisms, although there is no reason to expect capitalists to deny themselves the opportunity of developing collective institutions to supplement the force of imposed scarcity and necessity in securing their domination. However, the implication of Marx’s analysis is that the state is not, in the strictest sense, necessary to capitalist social reproduction, so that none of the concepts developed in Capital presuppose the concept of the state while, on the other hand, the state cannot be derived logically from the requirements of capitalist social reproduction. The necessity of the state is, therefore, not formal or abstract, it is the historical necessity, emerging from the development of the class struggle, for a collective instrument of class domination: the state has not developed logically out of the requirements of capital, it has developed historically out of the class struggle.

The development of the state as such a class instrument, and the institutional separation of the state from particular capitalist interests, is also a historical development as ‘private’ institutions acquire a ‘public’ character, and as ‘public’ institutions are subordinated to ‘private’ interest. This does not, however, mean that it is a purely contingent development; it is a development that is governed by historical laws that have to be discovered on the basis of Marx’s analysis of the historical laws governing the development of the capitalist mode of production.

I suppose that those ‘historical laws’ are what Postone elsewhere refers to as the ‘determinate logic’ of capital and Marx refers to as the ‘general formula for capital‘: M-C-M or self-valorising value, ‘value in motion’. Although capital does not presuppose the state and therefore it is not strictly necessary, the historical role of the state is to help guarantee the circulation of capital and commodity production by mediating between capital and labour as an outcome of class struggle.

The Reproduction of Capital and the Class Struggle

The state does not constitute the social relations of production. It is essentially a regulative agency. Therefore, its analysis presupposes the analysis of the social relations of which it is regulating. Such analyses cannot be undertaken at the same level of abstraction.

It is possible to analyze the process of capitalist reproduction through the production, appropriation, and circulation of commodities in abstraction from the state, as Marx does in Capital. The state is not a hidden presupposition of Capital, it is a concept that has to be developed on the basis of the analysis already offered in Capital.

Clarke argues that it is the concept of class struggle that “makes it possible to make the transition from the level of abstraction of the concepts of Capital to their historical application to the real world. If there were no class struggle, if the working class were willing to submit passively to their subordination to capitalist social relations, there would be no state.

As such, the state is “an essential aspect of the development of the class struggle, and has to be seen as an essential form of that struggle.” Class struggle mediates between the abstract analysis of capitalist reproduction and the concept of the state. “The problem of conceptualising the problem of the state is then the problem of conceptualising the class struggle.” The starting point is Marx’s analysis of the contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production, out of which class struggle develops.

The capitalist mode of production is not a structure, but rather “a process whose reproduction depends on its reproducing its own foundation.” It is a contradictory process in that the reproduction of capital necessitates the reproduction of the working class. The working class is not passive, but rather “the barrier to its own reproduction. This is the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production, whose concrete unfolding constitutes the history of capitalism.”

Next, Clarke discusses the reproduction of the class relation between capital and labour through the production and reproduction of surplus value. The purpose of doing so is to enquire into what the foundation of this class relation might be. “Does the reproduction of capital require some external agency to guarantee that foundation?” No. Marx demonstrated in Capital that this is not the case. However, although it is conceivable for capital to be self-reproducing, in practice “capitalists use every weapon at their disposal” to conduct the class struggle towards the creation of surplus value. One such weapon is the power of the state. Capital can never overcome the contradictory barriers it creates, only temporarily suspend them. “As a result, the state is not a functional agency that can resolve these contradictions. It is rather a complementary form through which capital attempts to pursue the class struggle in a vain attempt to suspend its contradictory character.”

The Reproduction of Capital, Class Struggle, and the State

The capitalist state developed historically through class struggles that accompanied the development of the commodity form, on the basis of the feudal state form.

Clarke states that the “crucial question is how to define the mediations through which political struggles are, nevertheless, determined as moments of the class struggle.”

The development of the capitalist state form is not a spontaneous unfolding of the logic of capital, it is something arrived at through trial and error in the unfolding of the class struggle, conditioned to a considerable extent by the direct agency of sections of the capitalist class and so, incidentally, conditioned by the outcome of struggles within that class.

Capital produces use-values as the means to produce surplus value. The reproduction of the state as a material force dependent on use-values therefore depends on the reproduction of capitalist social relations. A threat from the working class to the capitalist mode of the production of surplus value results in a threat to the historical role of the state.

the state is not simply a tool of capital, it is an arena of class struggle. But the form of the state is such that if the political class struggle goes beyond the boundaries set by the expanded reproduction of capital, the result will be not the supersession of the capitalist mode of production but its breakdown, and with it the breakdown of the material reproduction of society.

The capitalist class (which exists as a minority) has historically represented its own interests as the interests of ‘society’ or the ‘nation’ (the majority). Its ability to do this is due to the “dominance of capitalist social relations of production and on the material relations between capital and the state that together determine that the condition for the material reproduction of the state and of society is the expanded reproduction of the capitalist mode of production.”

Appeals to the ‘national’ interest reflect capital’s interest “in the material reproduction of society and of the state. “The dominance of capital is concealed as the silent presupposition.”

The state, therefore, appears as neutral and autonomous for the same reasons as capital appears as a mere technical factor of production, on the basis of the identification of the conditions for the material reproduction of capitalist society with that of its social reproduction (an identification that, incidentally, becomes more precarious as the internationalisation of capital is not matched by a breakdown of the nation state).

The basis of class struggle is the contradictory nature of capitalist production. Capital establishes its own barriers to reproduction and expansion:

Thus, for example, the subordination of the working class to capital contradicts its active role in production; the homogenisation of labour-power as a commodity contradicts the need for a differentiated working class and contradicts the conditions of the reproduction of labour-power; the socialisation of production contradicts the private appropriation of the product; the restriction of resources contradicts the inflation of workers’ needs; the subordination of the daily life of the worker to the reproduction of labour-power as a commodity contradicts the human aspirations of the worker.

Likewise, the needs of capital are contradictory.

The need to force down the value of labour-power contradicts the need to reproduce labour-power; the need to educate the working class contradicts the need to reduce to a minimum the drain on surplus value; the need to break down all non-capitalist social relations contradicts the need to sustain the family as the unit for the reproduction of labour-power; the need to introduce administrative regulation contradicts the need to maintain the discipline of the market; in short, the need to secure the material reproduction of society contradicts the need to secure its social reproduction.

The state is both a form of class struggle and a form of capital. It is therefore “a form through which the subordination of the working class to capital is reproduced.” Overcoming the state (i.e. a political revolution) requires the overcoming of the capitalist mode of production (i.e. a social revolution), “through which the working class expropriates the expropriators and transforms the social relations of production.”

The Working Class and the State

The historical tendency of the capitalist mode of production has been to incorporate working-class resistance into the state through political representation. This is intended to replace direct resistance of the working class to state power through the mediation of political representatives. This method developed historically as both capital and the state faced being overwhelmed by the collective power of the working class, gradually incorporating more and more franchises of the working class.

The framework of parliamentary representation is one in which social power is expressed as an abstract collectivity of individual interests, not as the concrete expression of collective power, so that the development of the aspirations of the working class is not matched by the development of any power to satisfy those aspirations — but this occurs so long as the working class is prepared to subordinate its challenge to the power of the state in the parliamentary form.

Pressure on the state to improve the conditions of the working class can only be met by an increase in the rate of accumulation. This is because the subordination of the state to capital “dictates that the only means the state has of improving the workers’ conditions of life is by intensifying the subordination of the working class to capital and intensifying the rate of exploitation — with the result of advancing one section of the working class at the expense of another.”

The parliamentary form of representation divides the working class by divorcing the interests of individual workers from the interests of the class. Workers come into conflict with one another as they compete on the labour market and again as they are organised hierarchically by the labour process.

The parliamentary form of representation “demobilises the working class in substituting the state for their own collective organisation as the means proffered for realising their class aspirations.”

The parliamentary form of representation “serves to divorce the political representation of the working class from the source of its [collective working-class] power and to deflect the opposition of the working class from capital in order to turn it against itself.”

The development of parliamentary representation for the working class, however much scope it may provide for improving the material conditions of sections of the working class, far from being an expression of collective working-class strength, becomes the means by which it is divided, demobilised and demoralised.

The illusory form of parliamentary politics should not be identified with political class struggle. Class struggle continues day-to-day through various other channels as it directly confronts state power.

The working class does not simply accept the division between economic demands, to be pursued legitimately through trade unions which mobilise the collective power of workers, and political demands, to be channelled through the political party and parliament. The boundaries of the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’, the definition of the ‘rights’ of capital and of the working class, and the forms of class mobilisation are a constant object of class struggle, with the working class constantly pressing beyond the limits accorded to it by capital and the state. Thus, workers occupy factories; encroach on the rights of management; mobilise against state policies as workers, as unemployed, as women, or young people, as tenants; and they take to the streets to confront the repressive arm of the state directly. Moreover, the inadequacy of the parliamentary form to the aspirations of the working class has meant that the state has to concede a growing political role to the collective organisations of the working class, as expressed in the political role played by the trade union movement and by a wide range of other working-class organisations.

Conclusion: The Capitalist State, the Class Struggle, and Socialism

Quoting Clarke:

Marxist discussion of the capitalist state has failed to integrate form and content sufficiently to achieve an adequate account of the state.

A better integration of form and content might be achieved by developing Marx’s analysis of the contradictory character of capitalist reproduction as the basis of an analysis of the developing form and content of the class struggle.

Several features that some have seen as essential to the capitalist form of state — in particular its autonomy, its externality and its particularity — turn out to be features of the form of appearance of the state and not its essential determinants.

The state cannot be isolated from other moments of the class struggle, for those different moments are complementary to one another, and the relationship between them is itself determined in the course of the class struggle.

The distinctiveness of the New Right lies in its attempt to alter the balance of the class struggle in the opposite direction, replacing state regulation by regulation through the commodity form and removing the working class from its ‘privileged’ political position.

It is a strategy that is firmly rooted in the class struggles of the 1980s, and in particular it is one that capitalises on the divisions, the de-mobilisation, and the demoralisation of the working-class movement that has been the price paid for decades of sheltering under the wing of a paternalistic state.

The activities of the working class’s self-proclaimed representatives make many sections of the working class — blacks, women, the young and the old — reluctant to identify themselves with their class at all. The relative success of reaction throughout the capitalist world can be put down as much as anything else to the demobilisation of the organised working class that developed as the workers were first lulled into trusting their political representatives to achieve their liberation and then, losing faith in its leaders, the working class was left demoralised and divided.

The need to mobilise resistance to reactionary governments has led many on the left to acquire a renewed faith in the parliamentary system, seeking to democratise working-class parties and to broaden their appeal in order to secure electoral victory and a reversal of past defeats. But such a response is to focus on the content of politics at the expense of its form.

Socialism is not simply about such quantitative matters as the distribution of income and wealth, pressing as such matters are, it is most fundamentally about the creation of an alternative society…. It is about making qualitative changes, about transforming social relations, about replacing the alienated forms of capitalist political and economic regulation by new forms of collective self-organisation and democratic control; and it is only on the latter basis that the state, and the power of capital, can be effectively confronted.

A socialist response to the rise of the New Right cannot be reduced to a defense of statism and welfarism; it can only involve the building and rebuilding of collective organisation. This means not only organisations such as trade unions, which organise workers at work, but also organisations of tenants, of young workers, of black and migrant workers, of women workers, so that the divisions within the working class and the fragmentation of working-class experience can be broken down through the development of a united movement. In the last analysis, as the experience of the ‘socialist’ countries shows only too clearly, the building of socialism can only be on the basis of the self-organisation of the working class .

Helplessness

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.

Valorisation

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.

Resistance

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)

Helplessness

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.

Notes towards a critique of ‘Labour Managed Firms’

We recommend to the working men to embark in co-operative production rather than in co-operative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork. (Marx, 1866)

My previous post outlined the key points from my reading of Egan and Jossa. In these notes, I reflect critically on the significance of labour-managed co-operatives, which are at the centre of their respective and related arguments. 1

Characteristics of a labour-managed co-operative firm

As previously outlined, Jossa identifies a specific form of producer co-operative as “revolutionary” and the institution of such firms at a national level as the actualisation of socialism. We need to be clear about the nature of this “revolutionary” institutional form, which, among other things, may provide a framework for a new model of co-operative university. In point 12 of my previous post, I encapsulated Jossa’s position as follows:

Labour Managed Firms “are cooperatives which fund themselves with loan capital and consequently draw a clear-cut distinction between incomes from work and incomes from capital or property.” (Jossa, 2005:14)

LMFs “effectively reverse the capital-labour relationship… the moment when cooperatives are prevented from self-financing themselves (i.e., provided they are organised as Labour Managed Firms (LMF) rather than Worker Managed Firms (WMF[/note], the description of producer cooperatives as firms run by workers as ‘their own capitalists’ will no longer apply. And as the LMF reverses the capitalistic relationship between capital and labour, it can without doubt be rated a genuine socialist enterprise in which workers cease acting as their own capitalists.” (Jossa, 2005:15)

Does this mean that the LMF abolishes the duality of concrete and abstract labour determined by capitalist wage labour and therefore the production of value based on the exchange of labour as a commodity? For Jossa, “The commodities manufactured by democratically managed cooperatives cease to be ‘in the first place an external object’ unrelated to our work … and turn into the product of free choices made by workers in association.” (2005:8)

It is worth quoting Jossa (2012a: 824-825) in more detail so that we are clear about the unique form of the Labour Managed Firm (LMF) – remember that the difference between the Worker Managed Firm and the Labour Managed Firm is, according to Jossa, “decisive.” 2

  1. LMFs are publicly owned firms whose managers are elected by the members of the firm in line with democratic procedures.
  2. Personnel can be freely hired and dismissed.
  3. Each self-managed firm is free to distribute its surplus to the members or retain it for capital accumulation.
  4. Given the ban on share issuance, LMFs raise capital resources either by contracting loans with banks or other credit institutions or by issuing bonds that can be freely placed on the market.
  5. The division of labour is still applicable, but as it is governed by the decisions made by workers in individual firms, it will be less strict than in capitalistic firms, where it is framed by capitalists.
  6. The interest that bondholders, the ‘capitalists’ of this system, cash on their loans is determined in accordance with methods consistent with orthodox theory.
  7. Even financial companies may be self-managed by workers.
  8. In Vanek’s approach, LMFs tend to maximise average member incomes; conversely, in later theoretical approaches the aim of an LMF is appropriately said to be maximising benefits of every type for the members through majority resolutions by the firm.
  9. The State is allowed to intervene in the economy with the aim of redressing market malfunctions in full keeping with the rules governing parliamentary democracies in general.
  10. Both for the sake of simplicity and because it is not easy to combine markets with planning it is assumed that public policy will not be centrally planned.

Briefly, an LMF can be termed an entity whose workers hire capital, remunerate it at a pre-fixed rate and apportion the firm’s earnings among themselves.

As a result, the firm models to be set against each other are capitalistic versus self-managed firms. In the former, capitalists or their representatives hire workers, pay them a fixed income (the wage rate) and appropriate the residual (the firm’s profit); in the democratic, cooperative or self-managed firm, workers (or their representatives) ‘hire’ capital (capitalists), remunerate it at a fixed rate of interest and appropriate the residual.

Hence, it is possible to describe democratic firms as non-capitalistic entities that reverse the typical capital–labour relation of capitalistic systems. This reversal is triggered by two main factors: (i) decisions are vested in workers, instead of in capitalists (as is the rule in capitalistic companies); and (ii) capitalists and workers switch roles, in terms that capitalists take the place of workers as fixed income earners and the variable incomes traditionally associated with capitalists are earned by the members of democratic firms.”

Jossa argues that this form of democratic, labour-managed, producer co-operative operates differently to a traditional capitalist firm by turning the relationship between capital and labour on its head.

However, what is crucial in this discussion is that on a number of occasions, Jossa emphasises that in his work “capital is defined in orthodox terms as the bulk of existing production means (not as a social relation).” (Jossa, 2012a: 824; 829; 2012b: 406) This conception of capital “as a material thing” (2012a: 829), and a “tool” (2012b: 413-4) has significant theoretical (and in my view practical) implications and we must start to unravel them with a discussion about labour. If a labour-managed co-operative is so distinctive from a worker-managed co-operative, what is “labour”?

Labour

Like his definition of capital, Jossa’s conception of labour is similarly orthodox. He recognises that when labour power is exchanged for a wage, it becomes a commodity and with that, the product from the socialisation of human creativity becomes the ‘property’ of the capitalist, the owner of the means of production. Although Jossa does not make a clear distinction between labour power and labour, we must assume that he understands labour power to be creative human potential and labour to be the application of that potential by the worker.

Jossa spends some time discussing abstract labour in the context of the labour theory of value where he is specifically concerned with the ‘problem‘, of transforming value into prices. Although he doesn’t define abstract labour in any certain terms, he eventually, and reassuringly, aligns himself with Bonefeld’s analysis. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to take very much from Bonefeld.

Jossa’s conviction is that in a labour-managed firm, labour power is not commodified and the duality of concrete and abstract labour (which Marx refers to as one of his two key contributions to political economy) no longer exists. We might expect that a post-capitalist form of labour no longer has the attributes of capitalist labour, as analysed by Marx, but in an attempt to avert “an insoluble contrast between Marxism and orthodox economic science” (2012a: 835), Jossa is willing to dismiss outright Marx’s dialectical method as well as his labour theory of value.

My reflections so far have provided evidence that—thanks to the demonstration that self-managed firms neither use labour power as a commodity nor, as a result, turn concrete labour into abstract labour—the theory of democratic firm management goes to refute the assumed link between the notion of commodity and Hegelian dialectics… Work becomes abstract when it is done in exchange for wages, and as democratic firms use no hired workers, such work as is done in these firms can never be abstract. As a result, the idea that the labour power-commodity identity is a dialectical contradiction is ruled out as a matter of course. (2012a: 836)

What is key here, is that Jossa thinks that abstract labour is determined by the wage. Without the wage, work “can never be abstract.”

Fine & Saad-Filho (2010: 20-21) provide a useful discussion of labour, which can help us understand Jossa’s views, without committing them to sharing his conclusions:

To distinguish the workers from their ability or capacity to work, Marx called the latter labour power, and its performance or application labour. The most important distinguishing feature of capitalism is that labour power becomes a commodity. The capitalist is the purchaser, the worker is the seller, and the price of labour power is the wage. The worker sells labour power to the capitalist, who determines how that labour power should be exercised as labour to produce particular commodities. As a commodity, labour power has a use value, which is the creation of other use values. This property is independent of the particular society in which production takes place. However, in capitalist societies use values are produced for sale and, as such, embody abstract labour time or value. In these societies, the commodity labour power also has the specific use value that it is the source of value when exercised as labour. In this, labour power is unique.

On the other side to the class of workers are the capitalists who control the workers and the product of labour through their command of wage payments and ownership of the tools and raw materials or means of production. This is the key to the property relations specific to capitalism. For the capitalist monopoly of the means of production ties the workers to the wage relation, explained above. If the workers owned or were entitled to use the means of production independently of the wage contract, there would be no need to sell labour power rather than the product on the market and, therefore, no need to submit to capitalist control both during production and outside, in society.

Jossa’s conception of capital and labour under capitalism accords with this description of labour and labour power in terms of the labour-capital property relation. In the passages above, all authors seem to align themselves with a material view of capital as a thing (i.e. property) which capitalists, a class of people who own the means of production, control.

In the absence of the wage-relation i.e. the LMF, workers sell the products that they created and own, rather than sell their labour for a wage. It seems that for Jossa, the key to the capitalist firm and therefore the ‘anti-capitalist’ LMF, turns on how property relations are organised. For Jossa, freedom from capitalism is equated with owning the means of production and from that “decisive” moment, a transition from the capitalist mode of production to the socialist mode of production occurs (Jossa, 2012b:405). For Jossa, once property relations are re-organised in favour of the worker, such that the wage can be abolished, labour is no longer a commodity and its value is no longer measured in abstract labour time because “work becomes abstract when it is done in exchange for wages.” (Jossa, 2012a: 836)

This view of capitalism and its alternative of socialism is common and can be considered the “orthodox” view. However, I think that despite the crucial importance to socialism of labour controlling the means of production, this alone is not a decisive characteristic of a new mode of production. Whereas Jossa argues that in the Worker Managed Firm the workers “are their own capitalists” and in the Labour Managed Firm, “workers cease acting as their own capitalists”, in my view both types of firm continue to operate in the capitalist mode of production, according to the law of value. In the passages quoted above, Jossa and Fine & Saad-Filho posit capital as a material thing and capitalists as controllers of the means of production and therefore of labour. This view is not objectionable and Marx discussed capital and capitalists in these terms, too. However, Marx and other later writers elucidated their conceptualisation of capital in much richer terms that, I think, deny the “decisive” significance of whether a wage is paid or surplus collective income is shared democratically. In both cases, capital and the law of value remains in control of both the workers and the capitalists. I discuss this next.

Value

What is “value”? If Jossa represents an orthodox view of Marxism, other writers such as Clarke, Elson and Postone offer a more radical and in my mind more convincing explanation of value and its role in capitalist society.

Simon Clarke (1979: 4)

The more radical interpretation of the concept of value gave it more than a strictly economic significance. Marx’s concept of value expresses not merely the material foundation of capitalist exploitation but also, and inseparably, its social form. Within Marxist economics this implies that value is not simply a technical coefficient, it implies that the process of production, appropriation and circulation of value is a social process in which quantitative magnitudes are socially determined, in the course of struggles between and within classes . Thus the sum of value expressed in a particular commodity cannot be identified with the quantity of labour embodied in it, for the concept of value refers to the socially necessary labour time embodied, to abstract rather than to concrete labour, and this quantity can only be established when private labours are socially validated through the circulation of commodities and of capital . Thus the concept of value can only be considered in relation to the entire circuit of capital, and cannot be considered in relation to production alone.

Elson (1979: i)

Why is Marx’s theory of value important? It is important because Marx’s theory of value is the foundation of his attempt to understand capitalism in a way that is politically useful to socialists. It is not some small and dispensable part of Marx’s investigation of capital; it constitutes the basis on which that investi­gation takes place. If we decide to reject that theory, we are at the same time rejecting precisely those tools of analysis which are Marx’s distinc­tive contribution to socialist thought on the workings of capital. The debate about Marx’s value theory is, in fact, a debate about the appro­priate method of analysis, about the validity of the concepts which are specific to, and constitute the method of, historical materialism. The outcome of this debate therefore has implications far beyond the way in which we understand prices and profit in the capitalist economy. It has implications for the question of how we should carry out our em­pirical investigations today of the international restructuring of capital accumulation; of new forms of class struggle, of the capitalist state; and of the possibilities for socialism. It has implications for the fundamental question of whether what is distinctive about Marx’s method of analysis is really of any use to socialists today.

Postone (1993: 188-90)

The abstract character of the social mediation underlying capitalism is also expressed in the form of wealth dominant in that society. Marx’s “labor theory of value” is not a labor theory of wealth, that is, a theory that seeks to explain the workings of the market and prove the existence of exploitation by arguing that labor, at all times and in all places, is the only social source of wealth. Marx analyzed value as a historically specific form of wealth, which is bound to the historically unique role of labor in capitalism; as a form of wealth, it is also a form of social mediation.

Marx explicitly distinguished value from material wealth. This distinction is crucially important for his analysis. Material wealth is measured by the quantity of products produced and is a function of a number of factors such as knowledge, social organization, and natural conditions, in addition to labor. Value is constituted by human labor-time expenditure alone, according to Marx, and is the dominant form of wealth in capitalism. Whereas material wealth, when it is the dominant form of wealth, is mediated by overt social relations, value is a self-mediating form of wealth.

What Jossa seems to overlook is that ‘value’, not the wage, mediates labour in a capitalist society.

According to Marx, labour in a capitalist society has two aspects: concrete and abstract labour. Concrete, physiological labour, produces an objective form of social wealth i.e. useful things: a chair, for example. Those things are valued because of their utility (‘use value’) and for their ability to be exchanged for other commodities, usually money. In a capitalist society, most things are made in order to be sold for a surplus compared to the total cost of producing them. In other words, almost all useful things are made primarily to be commodities. Therefore, a commodity, has both a ‘use value’ (the expression of its utility), and an ‘exchange value’ (the expression of its value).

I have said that ‘value’ is realised in the act of exchange, as ‘exchange value’, such that the product of labour has a use value and an exchange value. In order to have a value that is realised in the act of exchange, there must be a measure of equivalence so that the exchange value (value) of a commodity can be exchanged for another commodity, regardless of its utility. This is how we exchange the chair commodity for an ‘equivalence’ of the money commodity. This equivalence is an abstraction – not simply a mental, reasoned form of abstraction, but a ‘real abstraction’ where the desire or imperative for producing value creates a relation of abstract equivalence between different commodities. The thing or product, which is real and has ‘use value’, is exchanged in its abstract form i.e. value, expressed as exchange value.

The use value (the useful thing) is the product of concrete, physiological labour. It ‘contains’ that labour. Its exchange value is mediated by value, a real abstraction which is measured by ‘abstract labour’. Abstract labour is the labour ‘contained’ in the product when exchanged as a commodity. As most products are produced so as to be exchanged as commodities, we can say that the products of concrete labour in general, circulate in the exchange process as containers of abstract labour. Strictly speaking, a commodity is therefore nothing but abstract labour. Viewed as a social whole – a local, national and international market of commodity exchange – each commodity is, and expresses, a fraction of the abstract labour undertaken at the level of society as a whole. It is because of this, that like the equivalence of exchange, there is an equivalence of labour: abstract labour. If the equivalence of exchange is measured by the real abstraction of ‘value’, which mediates labour, how is the abstraction of labour measured?

Abstract labour is objectified as ‘value’, which is realised in the moment of commodity exchange. Money is a commodity, the most explicit expression of the equivalence of value. Labour is a commodity, because it is undertaken for money i.e. a wage.  The value of abstract labour is socially determined through the equivalence represented by the exchange value. What determines this equivalence changes constantly, based on a number of factors, such as the rate of productivity, the availability of skilled labour and ultimately the time it necessarily takes to produce the commodity using labour broadly understood i.e. mental and manual labour, living human labour and the ‘dead’ labour embodied in machinery. All of these manifestations of labour are related by the time it takes to produce the commodity. What may take living human labour to produce in two weeks, may take the ‘dead labour’ of machinery one minute to produce. Therefore, the value of abstract labour is determined by the ‘socially necessary labour time’ that it takes to produce commodities for exchange. Marx writes: “How, then, is the magnitude of this value to be measured? By means of the quantity of the ‘value-forming substance’, the labour, which it contains. This quantity is measured by its duration, and the labour-time is itself measured on the particular scale of hours, days, etc.”

From this analysis, we can say that the real abstraction of labour time determines value in capitalist society, and that because the majority of things are produced primarily for the purpose of exchange, socially necessary labour time determines the social and private lives of all members of that society. This includes the owners of capital, who themselves are governed by the same imperative: what Postone calls the ‘determinate logic’ of this value-creating process i.e ‘capital’.

A determinate mode of production

According to this view, capitalism is driven by a determinate logic expressed by the ‘commodity form’ (i.e. use value and exchange value). Regardless of whether the worker is paid a wage for the production of the commodity, if the commodity is exchanged (e.g. for money), it has an exchange value that expresses its value and therefore the value of its substance: labour. In capitalist society, value, the substance of which is (abstract) labour, is the dominant form of social wealth. Therefore, whether the worker is paid directly for their labour by the owner of capital (i.e. a ‘wage’), or draws her means of subsistence from the surplus value realised in the exchange process of commodities produced under conditions of production which she, on the face of it, controls; at the point at which the product of her labour, the commodity, is exchanged, its value is determined by the equivalence of socially necessary (abstract) labour time. As such, in the Labour Managed Firm, despite not receiving a conventional ‘wage’, and despite owning the means of production, the worker is “their own capitalist”, and remains dominated by the abstract ‘logic’ of value.

In order to be free from the domination of the logic of value, which mediates labour and therefore all social relations, it is not sufficient to control the specific means of production i.e. a ‘firm’. The problem must be tackled at all levels of society, locally, nationally and internationally, in order to overcome the overwhelming logic of this valorisation process located in both the production and the exchange of commodities, i.e. use values primarily produced for exchange value. Value is the form of social wealth in capitalism. What is the form of wealth 3  in a post-capitalist society where the imperative of creating value has been overcome? That is the question we are left with.

It is worth reiterating that the production of value fundamentally determines our lives: it is the organising principle of social relations. We know this because the majority of people need to sell their labour (‘labour power’) in order to survive from one year to the next. In many societies, there are ways of alleviating periods of unemployment (welfare, charity, loans), but this is not a solution to the problem of self-reproduction nor a socially acceptable form of subsistence. In the absence of a formal wage, as in the Labour Managed Firm, the worker still needs to draw an income from the surplus value created by the exchange of products they produced (i.e. the ‘commodity form’ still operates). As such, value and its real abstraction of equivalence between commodities and labour time remains the determinate of social relations.

However, despite our lives being fundamentally determined by the necessity to sell our labour as a commodity, within this overwhelming constraint, there is some contingency due to the dynamic, changing, social and ultimately contradictory nature of capital, expressed as value, the substance of which is human labour. Capital needs labour. Capital must confront labour.

Attacking the groundwork

Marx recognised that producer co-operatives, more so than consumer co-operatives, “attacked the groundwork” of capitalism. My notes above do not contest this, nor are they intend to dismiss the work of Egan, Jossa and the significant benefits of labour-managed co-operative production. Certainly, workers owning and democratically controlling the means of production is an essential part of the transition to socialism and both Jossa and Egan acknowledge that Labour Managed Firms are not the whole answer to achieving a post-capitalist society. Their work is very valuable in attacking the groundwork of capitalism, but in my view while the ownership of the means of production might change, the mode of production remains the same, determined by the law of value. The struggle to achieve a federation of labour-managed co-operatives on a national and international scale is as crucial today as it was in Marx’s time. In undertaking that struggle for the means of production, we must continue to critique the mode of production and recognise that despite the class opposition, both the worker and the capitalist remain unfree, bound to a particular mode of production that requires another strategy of theoretical and practical attack.

 

 

The association of free and equal producers

We acknowledge the cooperative movement as one of the transforming forces of the present society based upon class antagonism. Its great merit is to practically show that the present pauperising, and despotic system of the subordination of labour to capital can be superseded by the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers. (Marx, 1866)

Key points from Egan and Jossa papers 1

  1. Both authors write about co-operatively run ‘Labour Managed Firms‘ (LMF) in the context of Marx, Marxism and the historical development from capitalism to socialism. Jossa appears to be unaware of Egan’s earlier work but can be read as a continuation of Egan’s main points, as outlined below.
  2. Co-operatively run Labour Managed Firms (LMF) are distinct from Worker Managed Firms (WMF) – Jossa regards this distinction as “decisive.” (2005:14) However, for the purposes of these notes we can refer to both types of co-operative firm as ‘producer co-ops‘, which are distinct from the more common ‘consumer co-ops’. “We recommend to the working men to embark in co-operative production rather than in co-operative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork.” (Marx, 1866)
  3. Producer co-ops abolish wage labour. They hire capital rather than labour. This is a fundamental characteristic. “Employment is based on payment of a membership fee or the purchase of a membership share in the enterprise, not the sale of workers’ labor power. Any net surplus is distributed to labor, not capital.” (Egan: 67)
  4. Another fundamental characteristic of producer co-ops is that they are democratically run. In capitalism, democracy operates politically, but not economically. Capitalist firms are not democratic. Producer co-ops uniquely establish democracy within the firm. “Advanced capitalist states are predicated on the exclusion of democracy from all but the political sphere of social life. In particular, the discourse of democracy in these states is not extended to work and the economy.” (Egan:67) A genuine producer co-op is “an organizational expression of democratic control of production.” (Egan:69) “…one main advantage of producer cooperatives (from the perspective of a critic of capitalism) is to realise economic democracy as an essential component of political democracy.” (Jossa, 2005:5)
  5. A principal contradiction of capitalism is that it socialises the production of private property. i.e. labour is purchased and brought together by the owners of capital to produce more privately owned capital. In the capitalist firm, capital controls and co-ordinates labour through the wage.  Marx referred to the ‘double nature’ of management in capitalist firms, where due to the imperative to grow, capital ownership and management become separated and management is socialised (Egan: 70-71). The owner of capital supplies capital while the manager of the firm is the administrator of capital. The capitalist no longer directly supervises the production of capital. Joint-stock companies resolve this contradiction for the capitalist, in a way that remains negative for labour.
  6. Producer co-ops resolve this contradiction positively for labour. “The capitalist stock companies, as much as the co-operative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.” (Marx, 1894) The management of a producer co-op is established as a function of labour instead of capital. As Marx recognised: “In a co-operative factory the antagonistic nature of the labour of supervision disappears, because the manager is paid by the labourers instead of representing capital counterposed to them.” (Marx, 1894, quoted in Egan: 71) “Instead of management hiring labor, labor now hires management.” (Egan, ibid)
  7. Historically, Marxists have largely dismissed the potential of co-operatively run firms as ‘market socialism’ which inevitably degenerate into capitalist firms. However, there is clear evidence that Marx understood the distinct form of producer co-ops positively and as a historical development of capitalism leading to socialism (both Jossa and Egan point to similar sources in Marx’s writing to evidence this). “Marx sees cooperatives as a “transforming force” to the extent that they reflect the structural possibilities for democratic social production found within capitalism.” (Egan:72)
  8. Marx recognised that emerging producer co-operatives continue to operate within capitalism and reproduce the commodification of use-values through the sale of things in the market. In this way, the sustained success of producer co-operatives approximates that of the capitalist firm. Egan states that “this is where most contemporary Marxist commentary on labor-managed firms in advanced capitalism stops… A form of market determinism permeates this commentary; the power of the market to force cooperatives to degenerate into capitalist firms (if they survive at all) is seen as absolute.” (Egan: 73) However, capitalist markets are a historically specific form of social relations and therefore a dialectical analysis reveals the possibility of an alternative. “Worker cooperatives are politically and theoretically problematic, but so are all struggles which arise out of and challenge (either intentionally or unintentionally) the logic of capitalism… A Marxist analysis of worker cooperatives must critically examine the limitations of such an organizational form within capitalism, but it must do so from a foundation which also recognizes the positive qualitative developments which such organizations reflect.” (Egan: 76) “The potential for degeneration [into a capitalist firm] must be seen to lie not within the cooperative form of organization itself, but in the contradiction between it and its capitalist environment. Degeneration is not, however, determined by this contradiction.” (Egan: 82)
  9. For Marx, the formation of co-operatives as a historical (dialectical) outcome of capitalism must be the outcome of class struggle, rather than instituted by the state or paternalistic capitalists. For Marx, Egan and Jossa, a further fundamental characteristic of producer co-ops is “the development of a cooperative, solidaristic orientation between cooperatives themselves.” (Egan: 74) Co-operatives must assist each other rather than compete with each other in a “unity of action, and identity of interest.” (Egan, quoting Jones: 74)
  10. Drawing from Marx, Egan outlines “three institutional mechanisms designed to prevent co-operative degeneration.” First, hired labour must be prohibited. Second, co-operatives should belong to a national organisation. Third, a proportion of the surplus of co-operatives should be devoted to a fund for the creation of new co-operatives. (Egan: 75)
  11. Worker Managed Firms, “which are widespread in the Western world, self-finance themselves and consequently do not strictly separate labour incomes from capital incomes; their members earn mixed incomes (from capital and work), in place of pure incomes from work.” (Jossa, 2005:14) In such firms, workers are “their own capitalists”, a progressive development of capitalism. Marx wrote: “The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour. They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage.” (Marx, 1894)
  12. Labour Managed Firms “are cooperatives which fund themselves with loan capital and consequently draw a clear-cut distinction between incomes from work and incomes from capital or property.” (Jossa, 2005:14) LMFs “effectively reverse the capital-labour relationship… the moment when cooperatives are prevented from self-financing themselves (i.e., provided they are organised as LMFs rather than WMFs), the description of producer cooperatives as firms run by workers as ‘their own capitalists’ will no longer apply. And as the LMF reverses the capitalistic relationship between capital and labour, it can without doubt be rated a genuine socialist enterprise in which workers cease acting as their own capitalists.” (Jossa, 2005:15) Does this mean that the LMF abolishes the duality of concrete and abstract labour determined by capitalist wage labour and therefore the production of value based on the exchange of labour as a commodity? For Jossa (2005:8), “The commodities manufactured by democratically managed cooperatives cease to be ‘in the first place an external object’ unrelated to our work … and turn into the product of free choices made by workers in association.”
  13. For Jossa, the successful transition to socialism can and must be a gradual, non-violent process (Jossa, 2009). Producer co-operatives operating within a market economy “must be looked upon as a transitional economic system.” (2005:12) “This [co-operative] system can be established piece by piece, by enacting parliamentary legislation designed to further self-management in manners that will encourage the creation of democratic firms until these end up by outnumbering capitalistic firms. (Jossa, 2012a:834-5) Producer co-operatives mark a change in the mode of production and in this sense are revolutionary.  Socialism based upon national and international associations of producer co-operatives is the most credible alternative to the failures of state socialism and its centralised planning. (Jossa 2012a: 823)
  14. According to Jossa, a defining characteristic of capitalism is not that commodities (use values) are produced primarily for sale (exchange value), but that labour power is purchased as a commodity for the production of profit (surplus value).  In a LMF, labour power is not purchased and consequently a number of features of capitalism are called into question (e.g. alienation, the ownership of the means of production, the mode of production, the division of labour, the necessity of work). (Jossa, 2012a: 836)

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.

Notes on the university and the means of production

1. Consumption and production: The dominant discourse around higher education in the UK is its marketisation, i.e. knowledge as a commodity and universities as competing capitals.  Students are increasingly indentured consumers. Lectures are reduced to ‘content’ and academics are the original knowledge workers. At Lincoln, we have a strategy to resist this: Student as Producer. It is an intervention led by my colleague Mike Neary, based on a number of intellectual projects, including the critical social theory of Walter Benjamin [PDF].  Student as Producer has become the organising principle for teaching and learning across the entire institution. Student as Producer is against the marketisation of higher education. It is an attempt to shift the discourse away from the exchange of knowledge towards the production of knowledge. In essence, we ask what is higher education for? It is for the production of knowledge.

2. Technology for the production of knowledge: My work in the Centre for Educational Research and Development focuses on the role of technology in higher education. The role of technology in higher education is the same as the role of technology in other industries, which I do not need to elaborate here. The use of technology in higher education is not static nor linear. Scientific research undertaken in universities leads to the development of new technologies (e.g. computers) which confront students and academics when commodified. My particular interest in the role of technology in higher education is not, as is often the case, the pedagogical use of technology (e.g. the use of computers to support teaching and learning), but rather the institutional, infrastructural use of technology (e.g. the use of computers for scholarly communication). If we view ‘the university’ as an institution that exists for the production of knowledge, then we arrive at the question: what are the means of production in higher education? They are the same as any other industry: labour, science and technology, and capital. Each of these words have common meanings that we use in every day speech, but those ‘common sense’ and naturalised uses derive from historical, social and epistemological developments over hundreds of years.

3. Science as the instrument of capital accumulation: I had hoped, before now, to have written up my notes on Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s magnificent and out-of-print book, Intellectual and Manual Labour. A Critique of Epistemology [PDF]. What is significant here about Sohn-Rethel’s critique is his focus on the history, purpose and use of science. He boldly demonstrates that the history of science (i.e. since Galileo’s law of inertial motion), is pre-dated by and derived from the ‘real abstraction’ of the exchange of commodities. By ‘real abstraction’, he refers to abstract concepts having real, concrete effects. Often, we may not even be aware of or understand the abstraction (e.g. ‘value’), only its material outcome. Put another way, our lived historical experience is dominated (i.e. controlled) by abstraction, which is rooted in the history of commodity exchange. Sohn-Rethel attempts a remarkable study of the development of abstract thought, which I cannot do justice to here,  but to put it crudely, he argues that the origins of abstract thought are to be found in the invention of money as a ‘universal equivalent’ for the exchange of commodities, and that modern scientific theory is “knowledge of nature in commodity form” (132). This has deep and wide-ranging implications, not least in a higher education institution which produces scientific knowledge. If, as Sohn-Rethel argues, all science today is bourgeois science geared towards the purpose of capital accumulation,  higher education is at the heart of this configuration. We are reminded of this when we are told that higher education is an important engine for economic growth. In that claim, higher education is defined as a means of commodity production: it is the producer of scientific knowledge and all its labour power and infrastructure must in some way contribute to this production. But it doesn’t, yet, and there lies the struggle. Not in the circulation of knowledge, but in the production of knowledge.

4. The death of the guilds: In his study of the Death of the Guilds, Krause identifies the relatively recent re-configuration of academia by the capitalist mode of production. His work can be related to Sohn-Rethel, in that they both discuss the transition from artisanal to scientific modes of production; from a mode of production where the intellectual and manual labour were united, to a mode of production where the head (abstract thought) and the hand (craft) are separated. Artisans “owned the means of production” (S-R, 117) and guilds are groups of workers that exercise political power “primarily for their own ends.” (Krause, x). Guilds own the means of production. Both Krause and Sohn-Rethel recognise that the death of the guilds and the artisan mode of production that they were formed to protect, began to crumble with the early growth of capitalism in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For Sohn-Rethel, the writing was on the wall with the development of mathematics. “It is no exaggeration to say that one can measure the extent of division of head and hand by the inroad of mathematics in any particular task.” (113). For Krause, writing in 1996, the guild model of political power in academia only remained to some extent in the Oxbridge colleges. Krause and Sohn-Rethel are both useful for understanding the transformation of scientific research and teaching towards the capitalist mode of production (i.e. economic growth), which in recent years is put forward by the higher education sector as a justification of its continued public funding.

5. The birth of the commons: We can be certain that today, ‘the university’ is an institution organised bureaucratically, technologically, and epistemologically for the production of knowledge which is exchanged as a commodity. No institution can exist at such scale and compete nationally and globally in any other configuration. However, in the last decade or so, the Open Access (OA) movement has developed from within academia in a way that resembles the power of the guilds. The objective of Open Access is to provide scholarly literature online to the public, free of cost and most copyright restrictions. Open Access is a scholarly movement that is wielding political power and has deep implications for the mode and means of the production of knowledge in higher education. If openness within higher education is understood as a ‘recursive public’ (Kelty, 2008), we can observe and predict that further recursions will be deemed necessary to support the logic of Open Access: Open Data, so that research can be verified and built upon; Open Science, where the research process is conducted publicly; Open Source, where the research tools and software algorithms are transparent and accessible; and Open Peer Review, where the verification of research findings are themselves open to scrutiny for bias and inconsistency. Each of these recursions requires changes to the technological, social and bureaucratic configuration of universities (this gradual reconfiguration occupies much of my day-to-day work). Although the concept of recursion suggests a series of steps or iterations, each recursive element can occur concurrently, deferring its limits to the next process while continuing to unfold. As Kelty has noted, “the ‘depth’ of the recursion is determined by the openness necessary for the project itself.” (2008:30). The depth of recursion required by the logic of OA is still being worked out and remains a contested public through which the nature and purpose of science is being questioned. Kelty’s ‘recursive public’ is nothing more than a generalisation of political struggle expressed in terms immanent to its subject. Open Access has recursive implications that amount to the socialisation of the means of production of science. The production of a scientific commons. Communism.

I am grateful to Richard Hall for making clear to me something I had not fully grasped until now. The university itself is a means of production.

Open data and the academy: an evaluation of CKAN for research data management

This paper offers a full and critical evaluation of the open source CKAN software for use as a Research Data Management (RDM) tool within a university environment. It presents a case study of CKAN’s implementation and use at the University of Lincoln, UK, and highlights its strengths and current weaknesses as an institutional Research Data Management tool. The author draws on his prior experience of implementing a mixed media Digital Asset Management system (DAM), Institutional Repository (IR) and institutional Web Content Management System (CMS), to offer an outline proposal for how CKAN can be used effectively for data analysis, storage and publishing in academia. This will be of interest to researchers, data librarians, and developers, who are responsible for the implementation of institutional RDM infrastructure. This paper is presented as part of the dissemination activities of the Jisc-funded Orbital project.

Download the paper.

Writing, craft and method: Postone’s Notes on the German Reaction to ‘Holocaust’

Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to “Holocaust” (PDF)

I have read Moishe Postone’s article a number of times. Today, I sent it to a friend with the following message:

A bit off the wall, but I’ve attached one of my favourite articles. There’s probably a time and a place to read it and it may not be now. When it was first pointed out to me, I just didn’t get the significance of the argument, and very importantly, the *method* of argument. Having read it a few times now, I think it’s the work of genius.

In a profound and sophisticated way, it takes a general response to the film, ‘Holocaust’, and uses that moment in German popular culture to elaborate a critique of capitalism which offers an explanation for anti-semitism. The way Postone, the author, unravels his argument not only provides a superb discussion about the essence of capitalism vs its manifest form in anti-semitism, but also provides a structure for the critique of other manifest forms of capitalism. e.g. higher education, or whatever.

The article I am currently writing has been through four different drafts, each no less unsatisfactory as the last. As it currently stands, the article is much too long and in my historical discussion, I have so far been unable to move away from simply offering information (events, people, places), rather than an adequate explanation. This is a point that Postone makes about the media’s response to the film, Holocaust (1978).

The weaknesses of the understanding of anti-Semitism outlined above emerged with particular clarity in the discussions on the “Holocaust” film held after each showing on West German television. The panel members were at their best when presenting information: conditions in the concentration camps; the activities of the Einsatzgruppen and their composition (police as well as SS units); the mass murder of Gypsies; and the material difficulties and extent of Jewish resistance. They were at a loss, however, when they attempted to explain the extermination of European Jewry. (p. 98)

Working on the fifth draft of my paper, I have returned to Postone’s article once again to remind myself of his method here, which is one of the rare times (the only time?) that he has systematically applied his reading of Marx’s critique of capitalism to a historical event. Here, I want to examine the structure of his article in sufficient detail so as to borrow this methodological approach in my own article on the history of hacker culture and higher education.

The article is formally structured in five parts, which can be summarised as follows:

  1. A general introduction, providing context to the film and the popular reaction in West Germany, pointing out the weaknesses of that response. (97)
  2. A critical summary of the German New Left’s response to Nazism, National Socialism and the Holocaust. Argues that the past has been repressed. (100)
  3. The main body of his argument. Argues against a functionalist explanation of the Holocaust e.g. anti-Semitism as a form of prejudice, xenophobia and racism. Argues the need for “qualitative specificity” rather than generalised explanations (105). Distinguishes between anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish prejudice and Nazism. Begins to introduce the concept of abstraction. Argues that modern anti-Semitism attributes an “intangible, abstract and universal” power to the Jews (106). Aims to unite a socio-historical analysis of Nazism with an examination of anti-Semitism i.e. the concrete and abstract; a “historical-epistemological frame of reference.” Sets up objective in his own method: an explanation of anti-Semitism “in terms of socio-historical epistemology.” (107) Offers summary of where he is taking the argument: “a careful examination of the modern anti-Semitic worldview reveals that it is a form of thought in which the rapid development of industrial capitalism with all of its social ramifications is personified and identified as the Jew… In other words, the abstract domination of capital, which – particularly with rapid industrialisation – caught people up in a web of dynamic forces they could not understand, became perceived as the domination of International Jewry.” (107) Returns his argument to the distinction between substance and form, essence and abstraction: “the distinction between what modern capitalism is and the way it appears.” (108) Compares abstract attributes of anti-Semitism to characteristics of the value form as analysed by Marx: value and use-value. Moves into a “brief analysis of the way in which capitalist social relations present themselves” (109). Proceeds with a discussion of the commodity form, the dialectic of its double character: money/value and commodity/use-value. Elaborates theory of commodity fetishism and extends it to epistemology (cf. Sohn-Rethel?). Substantiates this theoretical discussion with brief indication of historical examples. Leads to argument that the Jews became the personifications of capital rather than merely representations of it; the “biologisation of capitalism”. The ‘anti-capitalism’ of National Socialism was expressed as anti-Semitism. “The overcoming of capitalism and its negative social effects became associated with the overcoming of the Jews.” (112)
  4. A very brief section discussing “why the biological interpretation of the abstract dimension of capitalism found its focus in the Jews.” (112) Offers historical explanation but focuses on the dialectic between the state and civil society –  the individual as citizen and person, as an abstraction and as a concrete human being. “The only group in Europe which fulfilled the determination of citizenship as a pure political abstraction, were the Jews following their political emancipation. They were Germans or French citizens but not really Germans or Frenchmen. They were of the nation abstractly, but rarely concretely… In a period when the concrete became glorified against the abstract, against ‘capitalism’ and the bourgeois state, this became a fatal association.” (113)
  5. The final section concludes the article by summarising how “modern anti-Semitism… is a particularly pernicious fetish form.” (113)  There is a very striking paragraph which argues that just as the capitalist factory is where value is produced, the extermination camp is its grotesque negation. “Auschwitz was a factory to ‘destroy value,’ i.e. to destroy the personifications of the abstract. “Its organization was that of a fiendish industrial process, the aim of which was to “liberate” the concrete from the abstract. The first step was to dehumanize, that is, to rip the “mask” of humanity away and reveal the Jews for what “they really are” – “Musselmanner,” shadows, ciphers, abstractions. The second step was then to eradicate that abstractness, to transform it into smoke, trying in the process to wrest away the last remnants of the concrete material “use-value”: clothes, gold, hair, soap.” (114) Finally, Postone ends by looking forward and cautioning the Left against pursuing

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.

The article warrants a very close reading – much closer than I have offered here, where I am more interested in understanding how Postone makes his argument, than what his specific object of investigation is.

In summary, the articles proceeds as follows: introduction > critical review > development of theoretical argument grounded by historical example > broad justification for preceding argument > conclusion and way forward. Section three is clearly the most substantive section and in essence it employs Marx’s examination of commodity fetishism and his labour theory of value in Capital Vol. 1, Chapter 1, to provide the analytical tools for a socio-historical and epistemological explanation of the Holocaust.

Student as Producer is hacking the university

With Dean Lockwood

This chapter discusses the Student as Producer project at the University of Lincoln and provides two case studies of how Student as Producer is infiltrating quite different areas of university life. The first discusses Student as Producer in the context of Deleuze and rhizomatic curriculum design, while the second looks at how the project is being applied to the development of an open institutional infrastructure, in which Computer Science students are redesigning and developing the tools used for research, teaching and learning.

Published in Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age

Contact me about this chapter. It is partly based on a case study I wrote for JISC.