Postone on power, structure and agency

A recurring question that students raise is, in one way or another, a question about the relationship between social structures and human agency (e.g. the regulatory power of state education and the agency of teachers). I encountered this again at a recent conference, where the discussion about the progressive potential of co-operatives became a discussion about the power of individuals (or collectives of individuals) to act in, against and beyond the seemingly totalising structures of capitalism. A casual response is that the relationship between social structures and individuals’ capacity to effect change is dynamic and occurs over time: individuals are shaped by society and society is shaped by individual action; this accounts for social ‘progress’. The history of sociology is a history of trying to describe and explain this relationship. A textbook account of Marxist theory might talk about the relationship between “base” and “superstructure”, perhaps quoting Marx from 1859, when he wrote, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” Fortunately, as Marx’s work testifies, it is not this simple.

My own understanding of a Marxist explanation of structure and agency has been formed by the writing of Moishe Postone, whose entire work and in particular his book, Time, Labour and Social Domination (1993), is an attempt to explain the power relationship between the structural and individuals. Postone stays very close to Marx and recognises that Marx’s original (and unsurpassed?) contribution lies in his explication of the categories of labour and value.

Indeed, in a letter from Marx to Engels on the 24th August 1867, the year that the first volume of Capital was published, he wrote:

The best points in my book are: 1. (this is fundamental to all understanding of the facts) the two-fold character of labour according to whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange-value, which is brought out in the very First Chapter; 2. the treatment of surplus-value regardless of its particular forms as profit, interest, ground rent, etc. This will be made clear in the second volume especially. The treatment of the particular forms in classical political economy, where they are for ever being jumbled up together with the general form, is an olla potrida.

Postone’s work is, in one sense, a theory of power (i.e. ‘social domination’). It is deeply concerned with the issue of structure and agency, but does not set out to systematically explain the relationship using those familiar terms. I think, in essence, he is arguing that both institutional structures (i.e. the ‘law’, ‘education’, the ‘economy’) and all individuals (rich, poor, capitalist, worker) are disciplined by an impersonal, historically specific (i.e. non-metaphysical) configuration of temporal domination that has replaced earlier direct relationships of domination (e.g. Feudal). In capitalism, our conception and use of time compels individuals to live according to the necessity of value production and in particular the need to produce ‘surplus value’ through the production of commodities, which are as Marx notes above, an expression of the dual character of labour. Within this relationship (i.e. the ‘capital relation’), wage labour is both structure and agency – it mediates the relationship between the individual and society. It is a structural necessity for all, even those who live entirely off the labour of others need labour to produce value for them, and so its abolition points to the overcoming of the structural necessity. Capitalist labour as conceived by Marx, is socially determined and yet so necessary to the formation of capital (which appears to be ‘self-valourising value’) that it holds the power to its self-overcoming. Hence, the title of Postone’s magnum opus, Time, Labour and Social Domination, refers precisely to the relationship between social structure and individual agency.

In what follows, I have extracted from two of Postone’s publications to illustrate how his work speaks to a theory of structure and agency. The first extracts are a fine example of Postone discussing value theory, which is in fact, a theory of structure and agency, or rather a theory that goes beyond such dualism. There is a lot to read below, but hopefully it illustrates the range of issues that Postone’s work (and therefore Marx’s) speaks to.

Source for extracts below: Postone (1995) Rethinking Marx (in a Post-Marxist World).

What, then, is the historical specificity of labor in capitalism? Marx maintains that labor in capitalism has a “double character:” it is both “concrete labor” and “abstract labor” (Marx, [1867] 1976a, pp.131-139). “Concrete labor” refers to the fact that some form of what we consider laboring activity mediates the interactions of humans with nature in all societies. “Abstract labor,” I argue, signifies that, in capitalism, labor also has a unique social function: it mediates a new form of social interdependence.

Let me elaborate: In a society in which the commodity is the basic structuring category of the whole, labor and its products are not socially distributed by traditional ties, norms, or overt relations of power and domination — that is, by manifest social relations — as is the case in other societies. Instead, labor itself replaces those relations by serving as a kind of quasi-objective means by which the products of others are acquired. That is to say, a new form of interdependence comes into being where no-one consumes what they produce, but where, nevertheless, one’s own labor or labor products function as the necessary means of obtaining the products of others. In serving as such a means, labor and its products in effect preempt that function on the part of manifest social relations. Instead of being defined, distributed and accorded significance by manifest social relations, as is the case in other societies, labor in capitalism is defined, distributed and accorded significance by structures (commodity, capital) that are constituted by labor itself. That is, labor in capitalism constitutes a form of social relations which has an impersonal, apparently non-social, quasi-objective character and which embeds, transforms and, to some degree, undermines and supersedes traditional social ties and relations of power.

In Marx’s mature works, then, the notion of the centrality of labor to social life is not a transhistorical proposition. It does not refer to the fact that material production is always a precondition of social life. Nor should it be taken as meaning that material production is the most essential dimension of social life in general, of even of capitalism in particular. Rather, it refers to the historically specific constitution by labor in capitalism of the social relations that fundamentally characterize that society. In other words, Marx analyzes labor in capitalism as constituting a historically determinate form of social mediation which is the ultimate social ground of the basic features of modernity — in particular, its overarching historical dynamic. Rather than positing the social primacy of material production, Marx’s mature theory seeks to show the primacy in capitalism of a form of social mediation (constituted by “abstract labor”) that molds both the process of material production (“concrete labor”) and consumption.

Labor in capitalism, then, is not only labor as we transhistorically and commonsensically understand it, according to Marx, but is a historically specific socially-mediating activity. Hence its products — commodity, capital — are both concrete labor products and objectified forms of social mediation. According to this analysis, the social relations that most basically characterize capitalist society are very different from the qualitatively specific, overt social relations — such as kinship relations or relations of personal or direct domination — which characterize non-capitalist societies. Although the latter kind of social relations continue to exist in capitalism, what ultimately structures that society is a new, underlying level of social relations that is constituted by labor. Those relations have a peculiar quasi-objective, formal character and are dualistic — they are characterized by the opposition of an abstract, general, homogeneous dimension and a concrete, particular, material dimension, both of which appear to be “natural,” rather than social, and condition social conceptions of natural reality.

The abstract character of the social mediation underlying capitalism is also expressed in the form of wealth dominant in that society. As we have seen, Marx’s “labor theory of value” frequently has been misunderstood as a labor theory of wealth, that is, as 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’s analysis, however, is not one of wealth in general, any more than it is one of labor in general. He 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 and related these two distinct forms of wealth to the duality of labor in capitalism. 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 (Marx, [1867] 1976a, pp.136-137; [1857-58]1973, pp. 704-705). 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.

Far from arguing that value is a transhistorical form of wealth, Marx sought to explain central features of capitalism by arguing that it is uniquely based on value. His categories are intended to grasp a historically specific form of social domination and a unique immanent dynamic — not simply to ground equilibrium prices and demonstrate the structural centrality of exploitation. (19) According to Marx’s analysis, the ultimate goal of production in capitalism is not the goods produced but value, or, more precisely, surplus value. As a form of wealth, however, value — the objectification of labor functioning as a quasi-objective means of acquiring goods it has not produced — is independent of the physical characteristics of the commodities in which it is embodied. Hence, it is a purely quantitative form of wealth. Within this framework, production in capitalism necessarily is quantitatively oriented — toward ever-increasing amounts of (surplus) value. As production for (surplus) value, production in capitalism is no longer a means to a substantive end, but a moment in a never-ending chain. It is production for the sake of production (Marx, [1867] 1976a, p. 742).

Marx’s theory of value provides the basis for an analysis of capital as a socially constituted form of mediation and wealth whose primary characteristic is a tendency toward its limitless expansion. A crucially important aspect of this attempt to specify and ground the dynamic of modern society is its emphasis on temporality. Just as value, within this framework, is not related to the physical characteristics of the products, its measure is not immediately identical with the mass of goods produced (“material wealth”). Rather, as an abstract form of wealth, value is based on an abstract measure -socially average, or necessary, labor-time expenditure.

The category of socially necessary labor time is not merely descriptive, but expresses a general temporal norm resulting from the actions of the producers to which they must conform. Such temporal norms exert an abstract form of compulsion which is intrinsic to capitalism’s form of mediation and wealth. In other words, the goal of production in capitalism confronts the producers as an external necessity. It is not given by social tradition or by overt social coercion, nor is it decided upon consciously. Rather, the goal presents itself as beyond human control. The sort of abstract domination constituted by labor in capitalism is the domination of time.

The form of mediation constitutive of capitalism, then, gives rise to a new form of social domination — one that subjects people to impersonal, increasingly rationalized structural imperatives and constraints (Marx, [1857-58]1973, p. 164). This form of self-generated structural domination is the social and historical elaboration in Marx’s mature works of the concept of alienation developed in his early works. It applies to capitalists as well as workers, in spite of their great differences in power and wealth.

The abstract form of domination analyzed by Marx in Capital cannot, then, be grasped adequately in terms of class domination or, more generally, in terms of the concrete domination of social groupings or of institutional agencies of the state and/or the economy. It has no determinate locus (20) and, although constituted by specific forms of social practice, appears not to be social at all. The structure is such that one’s own needs, rather than the threat of force or of other social sanctions, appear to be the source of such “necessity”.

In Marx’s terms, out of a pre-capitalist context characterized by relations of personal dependence, a new one emerged characterized by individual personal freedom within a social framework of “objective dependence” (Marx, [1857-58] 1973, p. 158). Both terms of the classical modern antinomic opposition — the freely self-determining individual and society as an extrinsic sphere of objective necessity — are, according to Marx’s analysis, historically constituted with the rise and spread of the commodity determined form of social relations.

Within the framework of this interpretation, then, the most basic social relations of capitalism are not relations of class exploitation and domination alone. The Marxian analysis includes this dimension, of course, but goes beyond it. It is not only concerned with how the distribution of goods and, ultimately, of power is effected, but also seeks to grasp the very nature of the social mediation that structures modernity. Marx sought to show in Capital that the forms of social mediation expressed by categories such as the commodity and capital develop into a sort of objective system, which increasingly determines the goals and means of much human activity. That is to say, Marx attempted to analyze capitalism as a quasi-objective social system and, at the same time, to ground that system in structured forms of social practice. (21)

The form of domination I have begun describing is not static; as we have seen, it generates an intrinsic dynamic underlying modern society. Further determinations of that dynamic can be outlined by considering some implications of the temporal determination of value.

Value’s temporal dimension implies a determinate relationship between productivity and value, which can only be briefly mentioned here. Because value is a function of socially necessary labor time alone, increased productivity results only in short-term increases in value. Once increases in productivity become socially general, however, they redetermine socially average (or necessary) labor time; the amount of value produced per unit time then falls back to its original “base level” (Marx, [1867] 1976a, p. 129). This means that higher levels of productivity, once they become socially general, are structurally reconstituted as the new “base level” of productivity. They generate greater amounts of material wealth, but not higher levels of value per unit time. By the same token — and this is crucial — higher socially general levels of productivity do not diminish the socially general necessity for labor time expenditure (which would be the case if material wealth were the dominant form of wealth); instead that necessity is constantly reconstituted. In a system based on value, there is a drive for ever-increasing levels of productivity, yet direct human labor time expenditure remains necessary to the system as a whole. This pattern promotes still further increases in productivity.

This results in a very complex, non-linear historical dynamic. On the one hand, this dynamic is characterized by ongoing transformations of the technical processes of labor, of the social and detail division of labor and, more generally, of social life — of the nature, structure and interrelations of social classes and other groupings, the nature of production, transportation, circulation, patterns of living, the form of the family, and so on. On the other hand, this historical dynamic entails the ongoing reconstitution of its own fundamental condition as an unchanging feature of social life — namely that social mediation ultimately is effected by labor and, hence, that living labor remains integral to the process of production (considered in terms of society as a whole), regardless of the level of productivity.

This analysis provides a point of departure for understanding why the course of capitalist development has not been linear, why the enormous increases in productivity generated by capitalism have led neither to ever-higher general levels of affluence, nor to a fundamental restructuring of social labor entailing significant general reductions in working time. History in capitalism, within this framework, is neither a simple story of progress (technical or otherwise) nor one of regression and decline. Rather, capitalism is a society that is in constant flux and, yet, constantly reconstitutes its underlying identity (whereby that identity, it should be noted, is grasped in terms of the quasi-objective and dynamic social form constituted by labor as a historically specific mediating activity, rather than in terms of private property or the market). This dynamic both generates the possibility of another organization of social life and, yet, hinders that possibility from being realized.

Such an understanding of capitalism’s complex dynamic allows for a critical, social (rather than technological) analysis of the trajectory of growth and the structure of production in modern society. We have seen that a system based on value gives rise to an ongoing drive towards increased productivity. Marx’s analysis of the category of surplus-value specifies this further. What is important about Marx’s key concept of surplus-value is not only, as traditional interpretations would have it, that it purportedly shows that the surplus is produced by the working class — but that it shows that the relevant surplus in capitalist society is one of value, rather than of material wealth. Marx’s analysis of this form of the surplus indicates that, the higher the socially general level of productivity already is, the more productivity must be still further increased in order to generate a determinate increase in surplus value (Marx, [1867] 1976a, pp. 657-658). In other words, the expansion of surplus value required by capital tends to generate accelerating rates of increase in productivity and, hence, in the masses of goods produced and raw materials consumed. Yet, the ever-increasing amounts of material wealth produced do not represent correspondingly high levels of social wealth in the form of value. This analysis suggests that a perplexing feature of modern capitalism — the absence of general prosperity in the midst of material plenty — is not only a matter of unequal distribution, but is a function of the value form of wealth at the heart of capitalism.

Source for extracts above: Postone (1995) Rethinking Marx (in a Post-Marxist World).

Source for extracts below: Postone (2006) History and Helplessness. Mass mobilization and contemporary forms of anti-capitalism.

The structural transformations of recent decades have entailed the reversal of what had appeared to be a logic of increasing state-centrism. They thereby call into question linear notions of historical development — whether Marxist or Weberian. Nevertheless, large-scale historical patterns of the “long twentieth century,” such as the rise of Fordism out of the crisis of nineteenth-century liberal capitalism and the more recent demise of the Fordist synthesis, suggest that an overarching pattern of historical development does exist in capitalism. This implies, in turn, that the scope of historical contingency is constrained by that form of social life. Politics alone, such as the differences between conservative and social democratic governments, cannot explain why, for example, regimes everywhere in the West, regardless of the party in power, deepened and expanded welfare state institutions in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, only to cut back such programs and structures in subsequent decades. There have been differences between various governments’ policies, of course, but they have been differences in degree rather than in kind. Such large-scale historical patterns, I would argue, are ultimately rooted in the dynamics of capital and have been largely overlooked in discussions of democracy as well as in debates on the merits of social coordination by planning versus that effected by markets. These historical patterns imply a degree of constraint, of historical necessity. Yet attempting to come to grips with this sort of necessity need not reify it. One of Marx’s important contributions was to provide a historically specific grounding for such necessity, that is, for large-scale patterns of capitalist development, in determinate forms of social practice expressed by categories such as commodity and capital. In so doing, Marx grasped such patterns as expressions of historically specific forms of heteronomy that constrain the scope of political decisions and, hence, of democracy. His analysis implies that overcoming capital entails more than overcoming the limits to democratic politics that result from systemically grounded exploitation and inequality; it also entails overcoming determinate structural constraints on action, thereby expanding the realm of historical contingency and, relatedly, the horizon of politics.

To the degree we choose to use “indeterminacy” as a critical social category, then, it should be as a goal of social and political action rather than as an ontological characteristic of social life. (The latter is how it tends to be presented in poststructuralist thought, which can be regarded as a reified response to a reified understanding of historical necessity.) Positions that ontologize historical indeterminacy emphasize that freedom and contingency are related. However, they overlook the constraints on contingency exerted by capital as a structuring form of social life and are, for this reason, ultimately inadequate as critical theories of the present. Within the framework I am presenting, the notion of historical indeterminacy can be reappropriated as that which becomes possible when the constraints exerted by capital are overcome. Social democracy would then refer to attempts to ameliorate inequality within the framework of the necessity imposed structurally by capital. Although indeterminate, a postcapitalist social form of life could arise only as a historically determinate possibility generated by the internal tensions of capital, not as a “tiger’s leap” out of history.

 

Those positions, I would argue, must also be understood with reference to the massive historical transformations since the early 1970s, to the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism. An important aspect of this transition has been the increasing importance of supranational (as opposed to international) economic networks and flows, which has been accompanied by a decline in effective national sovereignty — by the growing inability of national state structures (including those of national metropoles) to successfully control economic processes. This has been manifested by the decline of the Keynesian welfare state in the West and the collapse of bureaucratic party states in the East. It has been associated with increasing vertical differentiation between the rich and the poor within all countries, and among countries and regions. The collapse of Fordism has meant the end of the phase of state-directed, nationally based development — whether on the basis of the communist model, the social-democratic model, or the statist-developmentalist Third World model. This has posed enormous difficulties for many countries and huge conceptual difficulties for all those who viewed the state as an agent of positive change and development. The effects of the collapse of the midcentury Fordist synthesis have been differential; they have varied in different parts of the world.

Such abstract historical processes can appear mysterious “on the ground,” beyond the ability of local actors to influence, and can generate feelings of powerlessness.

I am suggesting, in other words, that the spread of anti-Semitism and, relatedly, anti-Semitic forms of Islamicism (such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas) should be understood as the spread of a fetishized anticapitalist ideology which claims to make sense of a world perceived as threatening. This ideology may be sparked and exacerbated by Israel and Israeli policies, but its resonance is rooted in the relative decline of the Arab world against the background of the massive structural transformations associated with the transition from Fordism to neoliberal global capitalism. The result is a populist antihegemonic movement that is profoundly reactionary and dangerous, not least of all for any hope for progressive politics in the Arab/Muslim world. Rather than analyzing this reactionary form of resistance in ways that would help support more progressive forms of resistance, however, many on the Western Left have either ignored it or rationalized it as an unfortunate, if understandable, reaction to Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank. This basically uncritical political stance, I would argue, is related to a fetishized identification of the United States with global capital. There are many implications of this conflation. One is that other powers, such as the European Union, are not treated critically as rising cohegemons/competitors in a global capitalist dynamic order, whose rising positions help shape the contours of global power today. Rather, the role of the EU, for example, is bracketed or Europe is implicitly treated as a haven of peace, understanding, and social justice. This form of misrecognition is related to the tendency to grasp the abstract (the domination of capital) as concrete (American hegemony). This tendency, I would argue, is an expression of a deep and fundamental helplessness, conceptually as well as politically.

After World War II this complex of attitudes became adopted by some on the Left, transmitted in some cases via the medium of existentialism. This was particularly the case in the late 1950s and 1960s, as social critique focused increasingly on technocratic bureaucratic forms of domination and as the Soviet Union increasingly became perceived as sharing in a dominant culture of instrumental rationality. Within this context violence became seen as a nonreified, cleansing force erupting from the outside, identified now as the colonized, attacking the very foundations of the existing order. An irony involved in this “radical” stance, in the idea of violence as creative, cleansing, and revolutionary, is that it expresses and affirms a central characteristic of capitalism: its ceaseless revolutionizing of the world through waves of destruction that allow for creation, for further expansion. (Like the liberal notion of the rational actor, the existentialist and anarchist notions of the self-constitution of personhood through violence entail a projection onto the individual of that which characterizes corporate entities in capitalism.)

Hannah Arendt provided a telling critique of the sort of thinking about violence found in the works of Georges Sorel, Vilfredo Pareto, and Frantz Fanon. Those thinkers, according to Arendt, glorified violence for the sake of violence. Motivated by a much deeper hatred of bourgeois society than the conventional Left for whom violence could be a means in the struggle for a just society, Sorel, Pareto, and Fanon regarded violence per se as inherently emancipatory, as a radical break with society’s moral standards. Retrospectively, we can see that the sort of existentialist violence promulgated may have effected a break with bourgeois society — but not, however, with capitalism. Indeed, it seems to acquire most importance during transitions from one historical configuration of capitalism to another.

Thinking with Arendt, I will briefly consider the resurgence in the late 1960s of Sorelian-type glorifications of violence. The late 1960s were a crucial historical moment, one when the necessity of the present, of the current social order, was fundamentally called into question. Viewed retrospectively, it was a moment when state-centered Fordist capitalism and its statist “actually existing socialist” equivalent ran up against historical limits. Attempts to get beyond those limits were, however, singularly unsuccessful, even on a conceptual level. As the Fordist synthesis began to unravel, utopian hopes were nourished. At the same time, the target of social, political, and cultural discontent became maddeningly elusive and all-pervasive. The felt pressures for change were present, but the road to change was very unclear.

In this period, students and youth were not so much reacting against exploitation as they were reacting against bureaucratization and alienation. Not only did classical workers’ movements seem unable to address the burning issues for many young radicals, but those movements — as well as the “actually existing socialist” regimes — seemed to be deeply implicated in precisely what the students and youth were rebelling against.

Faced with this new historical situation, this political terra incognita, many oppositional movements took a turn to the conceptually familiar, to a focus on concrete expressions of domination, such as military violence or bureaucratic police-state political domination. Such a focus allowed for a conception of oppositional politics that was itself concrete and, frequently, particularistic (e.g., nationalism). Examples were concretistic forms of anti-imperialism as well as the growing focus by some on concrete domination in the communist East. As different, and even opposed, as these political responses may have appeared at the time, both occluded the nature of the abstract domination of capital just when capital’s regime was becoming less state-centric and, in that sense, even more abstract.

The turn to Sorelian violence was a moment of this turn to the concrete. Violence, or the idea of violence, was seen as an expression of political will, of historical agency, countering structures of bureaucratization and alienation. In the face of alienation and bureaucratic stasis, violence was deemed creative, and violent action per se became viewed as revolutionary. In spite of the association of violence with political will, however, I would argue, as did Arendt, that the new glorification of violence of the late 1960s was caused by a severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world. That is, it expressed an underlying despair with regard to the real efficacy of political will, of political agency. In a historical situation of heightened helplessness, violence both expressed the rage of helplessness and helped suppress such feelings of helplessness. It became an act of self-constitution as outsider, as other, rather than an instrument of transformation. Yet, focused as it was on the bureaucratic stasis of the Fordist world, it echoed the destruction of that world by the dynamics of capital. The idea of a fundamental transformation became bracketed and, instead, was replaced by the more ambiguous notion of resistance. The notion of resistance, however, says little about the nature of that which is being resisted or of the politics of the resistance involved — that is, the character of determinate forms of critique, opposition, rebellion, and “revolution.”

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. Relatedly, it blurs important distinctions between politically very different forms of violence.

What I have characterized as a turn to the concrete in the face of abstract domination is, of course, a form of reification. It can take various shapes. Two that have emerged with considerable force in the past 150 years have been the conflation of British and, then, American hegemony with that of global capital, as well as the personification of the latter as the Jews. This turn to the concrete, together with a worldview strongly influenced by Cold War dualisms (even among leftists critical of the Soviet Union), helped constitute a framework of understanding within which recent mass antiwar mobilizations operated, where opposition to a global power did not even implicitly point to a desired emancipatory transformation, certainly not in the Middle East. Such a reified understanding ends up tacitly supporting movements and regimes that have much more in common with earlier reactionary — even fascist — forms of rebellion than they do with anything we can call progressive.

I have described an impasse of the Left today and sought to relate it to a form of reified thought and sensibility that expressed the disintegration of the Fordist synthesis beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In my view this impasse expresses a complex crisis of the Left related to a perception that the industrial working class was not and would not become a revolutionary subject. At the same time, this crisis was related to the end of the state-centric order. The power of the state as an agent of social and democratic change was undermined, and the global order was transformed from an international to a supranational one. I would like to briefly outline an additional aspect of the reification associated with the impasse of the Left in the face of the collapse of Fordism. Neoliberal global capitalism has, of course, been promoted by successive American regimes. To completely conflate the global neoliberal order and the United States would, nevertheless, be a colossal mistake, politically as well as theoretically. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the hegemonic role of Great Britain and the liberal world order was challenged by the growing power of a number of nation-states, most notably Germany. These rivalries, which culminated in two world wars, were referred to as imperialist rivalries. Today we may be seeing the beginnings of a return to an era of imperialist rivalry on a new and expanded level. One of the emerging ongoing areas of tension is between the Atlantic powers and a Europe organized around a French-German condominium.

The war in Iraq can, in part, be seen as an opening salvo in this rivalry. Whereas a century ago, the Germans sought to challenge the British Empire by means of the Berlin – Baghdad Railroad, more recently the Iraqi Baath regime was on its way to becoming a Franco-German client state. It is very significant that in 2000, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq became the first country to replace the dollar with the euro as the currency mediating the sale of oil. This substitution, of course, challenged the dollar’s position as a world currency. At issue is not whether the Euro Bloc represents a progressive or regressive alternative to the United States. Rather, it is that this action (and the American reaction) may plausibly be seen as expressing the beginnings of an intercapitalist rivalry on a global scale. “Europe” is changing its meaning. It is now being constructed as a possible counterhegemon to the United States.

The reemergence of imperialist rivalries calls for the recovery of nondualistic forms of internationalism.

However objectionable the current American administration is — and it is deeply objectionable on a very wide range of issues — the Left should be very careful about becoming, unwittingly, the stalking horse for a would-be rival hegemon. On the eve of World War I, the German General Staff thought it important for Germany that the war be fought against Russia as well as France and Great Britain. Because Russia was the most reactionary and autocratic European Power, the war could then be presented as a war for central European culture against the dark barbarism of Russia, which would guarantee Social Democratic support for the war. This political strategy succeeded — and resulted in a catastrophe for Europe in general and for Germany in particular. We are very far from a prewar situation like that of 1914. Nevertheless, the Left should not make a similar mistake by supporting, however implicitly, rising counterhegemons in order to defend civilization against the threat posed by a reactionary power.

However difficult the task of grasping and confronting global capital might be, it is crucially important that a global internationalism be recovered and reformulated. Retaining the reified dualistic political imaginary of the Cold War runs the risk of constituting a form of politics that, from the standpoint of human emancipation, would be questionable, at the very best, however many people it may rouse.

Source for the above: Postone (2006) History and Helplessness. Mass mobilization and contemporary forms of anti-capitalism.

Korsch on Marx on Gotha on Co-operatives

From Karl Korsch’s Introduction to the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1922)

“Equally complex and at first sight obscure motives lie behind Marx’s furious and relentless attack in section III on the one socio-economic demand the Gotha Programme makes — the demand for ‘establishing producers’ co-operatives with State aid’. Here, as with the iron law of wages, Marx’s fierce attack is not really against the call for producers’ cooperatives as such, but only against the particular role that they play in Lassalle’s system. In fact, ten years earlier Marx had actually included ‘the establishment of producers’ associations and other institutions of use to the working class’ among the practical demands of the I.W.A. statues, and in his Inaugural Address he hailed the co-operative movement, along with the ten-hour day, as ‘up to now the greatest victories of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property’. At that time he even emphatically demanded the ‘development of co-operative labour on a national scale’, aided by ‘the means of the State’. Here, too, there would superficially appear to be no real conflict between Marx’s position and the demand made by the draft Gotha Programme. In fact, however, this example of Marx’s anger is a vivid expression of a deep and substantive difference between his outlook and that of Lassalle. For Marx was only too well aware of the real nature of this scheme (amply demonstrated in any event by the rest of the Programme). The plan for associations of co-operatives conceived in the 1860s along ‘Lassallean’ lines (whatever Lassalle himself may originally have said when first advancing this demand) relied much more on State aid than on the creation of a co-operative economy itself. Its real aim was to use aid to the producers’ associations to change the ‘limited bourgeois state’ into a ‘socialist state that would fulfil the ethical idea of freedom’ — instead of seeking the necessary material preconditions for attaining a socialist society in the predominance of the political economy of the working class over the political economy of property (which may be furthered, among other things, by producers’ cooperatives). This was a flagrant violation of a major principle in the I.W.A. Declaration of Principles which stated that ‘the economic emancipation of the working class is the principle aim, which every political movement must serve to advance’. Marx in section III of the Critique seeks to demolish the key concept of ‘co-operatives based on State credit’ as a regression into crude ideological and utopian errors. (This idea has recently found its worthy successors in the equally empty notions of many German socialists about ‘socialization’ or ‘seizing real values’.) Marx reaffirms against these illusions the true materialist and revolutionary meaning of the words ‘producers’ associations on a national scale’ by saying: ‘That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale, in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with State aid’.”

Alchemy

Source: Nathaniel Dorsky (2005) Devotional Cinema, 2nd ed., Berkley: Tuumba Press, 24-25.

“For alchemy to take place in a film, the form must include the expression of its own materiality, and this materiality must be in union with its subject matter. If this union is not present, if the film’s literalness is so overwhelming, so illustrative, that it obliterates the medium it is composed of, then one is seduced into a dream state of belief or absorption that, though effective on that level, lacks the necessary ingredients for transmutation. Such a film denies its totality. It denies the fact of what it is actually made of.

The instinct to express the union of material and subject occurs at the beginning of known human expression. The devotional cave art in southern France and northern Spain often plays with the contours of the cave walls to enhance the hallucination of the bison or horse depicted on them. Egyptian sculpture is as much about the unceasing nature of stone as it is about the unceasing glance engraved on that stone. In French religious stone carving of the late twelfth century, the stone itself is luminous, as both material and expression. The stained glass of the same period was born out of a love of the elemental glory oflight, color, and glass, while at the same time relating biblical tales or the lives of saints. Similarly, Bach’s organ chorale preludes are as much an expression of skeletal fingers pressing down on ivory keys and releasing air through pipes as they are melodic evocations of prayer. Mozart, born into the age of classicism, wedded his classical style to the human metabolism in every detail. The texture of the instrumentation, the key changes, and the depiction of conversation and emotion through melodic line are the music itself and at the same time are a primordial mirror or example of what it is to be fully human. We hear ourselves at our alchemical best.

For film to partake in this luminosity and elemental glory, and thereby lay the ground for devotion, it must obey its own materiality.”

HE White Paper, the HERB, and Co-operative Higher Education

Yesterday, my colleague Mike Neary and I met with Dan Cook (who wrote a very good consultancy report for the Co-operative College on Co-operative Universities in 2013), Ian Snaith, a Lawyer and legal scholar specialising in co-operatives, and Smita Jamdar, a Lawyer who specialises in education. Our intention was to look at the new Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) in some detail, thinking about three scenarios:

  1. The conversion of an existing university to a co-operative
  2. The creation of a new co-operative university (a so-called ‘challenger institution’ to use the aggressive new parlance) 1)What to call new forms of higher education? ‘Alternative providers’? ‘Challenger institutions’? I attended a conference last week where people were avoiding the use of ‘alternative’ because they didn’t want their vision of new forms of HE to be confused with the practices of some ‘alternative providers’ and had opted for ‘heterodox universities’ as an overarching term. Personally, I think ‘co-operative higher education’ avoids all of this and benefits from being an already existing organisational form that has a long, progressive social history – longer than most universities.
  3. The possibility of a foreign co-operative university (e.g. Mondragon) accrediting degrees that are offered by a co-operative in the UK.

In summary, we agreed there will be no real barriers to any of these scenarios should the HERB go through Parliament as it is.

Following our meeting, Dan has published a detailed blog post which annotates the HERB and is well worth a read. There is more work to be done on examining the new legislation and in particular making sure it will fairly accommodate all types of new HEIs, and not just private, profit-making businesses. There are likely to be small changes to the proposed legislation  that could actually support the creation of co-operative universities and this is one of the things we’ll be focusing on in the future.

References   [ + ]

1. What to call new forms of higher education? ‘Alternative providers’? ‘Challenger institutions’? I attended a conference last week where people were avoiding the use of ‘alternative’ because they didn’t want their vision of new forms of HE to be confused with the practices of some ‘alternative providers’ and had opted for ‘heterodox universities’ as an overarching term. Personally, I think ‘co-operative higher education’ avoids all of this and benefits from being an already existing organisational form that has a long, progressive social history – longer than most universities.

The more radical interpretation of the concept of value…

Source: Simon Clarke (1980), The Value of Value, Capital and Class, 10.

“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 inseperably, 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.

Moreover neither the quantity of labour embodied in the commodity, nor the quantity of socially necessary labout time attributed to it can be considered as technical coefficients. The social form within which labour is expended plays a major role in determining both the quantity of labour that is expended in producing a commodity with a given technology, and the relation of this quantity to the socially necessary labour time through the social validation of labour time. Finally, the technology itself cannot be treated as an exogenous variable, for the pace and pattern of technological development is also conditioned by the social form of production . Thus consideration of the social form of labour cannot be treated as a sociological study that supplements the hard rigour of the economist, it is inseparable from consideration of the most fundamental economic and even technological features of capitalism.”

“If we consider the production and circulation of use-values the two spheres can be defined independently of one another: a certain determinate quantity of use-values is first produced and then exchanged one for another. However as soon as we consider the production and circulation of value, which is the basis for our understanding of the social form of production, it becomes impossible to consider production and circulation independently of one another. Labour time is expended in production, but this labour time is only socially validated in circulation, so value cannot exist prior to exchange, while surplus value depends on the relation between the result of two exchanges (of money capital for labour power and of commodity capital for money) . Thus value cannot be determined within production, independently of the social validation of the labour expended within circulation: circulation is the social form within which apparently independent productive activities are brought into relation with one another and have the stamp of value imposed on them. However value cannot be determined in circulation either, for circulation is the form in which the social mediation of private labours takes place and the latter provide the material foundation of the social determination of value. Thus to isolate production from circulation, even analytically, is to isolate independent productive activities from one another, and so to deprive production of its social form. To isolate circulation from production, on the other hand, is to isolate the social relations between producers from their material foundation. It is in this sense that production and circulation can only be seen as moments of a whole, as the development of the contradictory unity of value and use-value with which Capital begins. The argument holds with added force when we turn to surplus value, and so capital, which depends in addition on the commodity form of labour power.

The idea that the circuit of capital is a totality of which production and circulation are moments is not a metaphysical idea, although Marx does say that the commodity appears to be ‘a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ (Capital, I, p. 71, 1967 Moscow edition). The totality is not simply a conceptual totality, an Hegelian idea imposed on reality, it is real and it has a concrete existence. Its reality is that of the class relation between labour and capital, and its existence is the everyday experience of millions of dispossessed workers.”

Social Solidarity Co-operatives for Higher Education (2)

Following on from a conference paper that I wrote in late 2014, I have been thinking more about the ‘social’ (Italy) or ‘solidarity’ (Canada) or ‘multi-stakeholder‘ (UK) form of co-operative as a constitutional and organisational form for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).

The corporation

To begin with, I have been thinking about the chapter in Marx’s Capital Vol.3 where he discussed the role of credit, and in that chapter also discusses the (relatively new at the time) form of ‘joint-stock’ companies. What we call ‘corporations‘ today are the modern day version of this form of company, characterised by the socialisation of capital among multiple capitalists, united under the single legal personality of the corporation, with limited liability for its assets. It’s Marx’s emphasis that the corporate form represents not simply the concentration of capital (tending towards monopolies), but also the socialisation of capital as it does away with the individual private capitalist.

Although the term ‘corporate’ often has negative connotations today, Marx understood incorporated joint-stock companies as a historically progressive form of association, to the extent that he thought they were evidence of “the abolition of capital as private property within the framework of capitalist production itself.” Marx gives four reasons why joint-stock companies were historically progressive:

  1. By combining their individual capital and creating a form of “social capital”, capitalists could scale up their endeavours and produce at much larger scales, even taking on some of the services that the state provided.
  2. The combination of social capital with the already social mode of production, and the concentration of the social means of production, results in a shift from private undertakings to social undertakings i.e. “the abolition of capital as private property within the framework of capitalist production itself.” Individual capitalists no longer compete with each other, but form share-holding groups of capitalists who compete as single corporate personalities.
  3.  The individual capitalist can no longer point to his or her individual capital, but becomes instead a “mere money capitalist”. The “actually functioning capitalist” is the “mere manager, administrator of other people’s capital”, who like the worker is alienated from the means of production. Marx regarded this as “the ultimate development of capitalist production” and “a necessary transitional phase towards the reconversion of capital into the property of producers, although no longer as the private property of the individual producers, but rather as the property of associated producers, as outright social property.”
  4. The means of production no longer belongs to the individual capitalist, but is rather the social capital of the “association of producers” (shareholders). As such, no individual owns the means of production as it is the “social property” of the owners of capital (the “money capitalists”). However, it is an “appropriation of social property by a few” rather than by the majority (the workers, managers, administrators, etc.) The corporate form of joint-stock companies still remains “ensnared in the trammels of capitalism”.  It may be a progressive, transitional form of association, but does not overcome the antithesis between social and private wealth.

However, Marx finishes the chapter by pointing to another new form of association: the worker co-operative.  It is better I just quote the whole paragraph here:

“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. Without the factory system arising out of the capitalist mode of production there could have been no co-operative factories. Nor could these have developed without the credit system arising out of the same mode of production. The credit system is not only the principal basis for the gradual transformation of capitalist private enterprises into capitalist stock companies, but equally offers the means for the gradual extension of co-operative enterprises on a more or less national scale. 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.”

The worker co-operative then, is also a transitional form of association that socialises property and goes one stage further than joint-stock companies by socialising the ownership of capital among the association of producers/workers. Within the historical limits of the 19th c. “prevailing system”, worker co-operatives represented the most progressive form of capitalist association where the ownership of, the means of, and the mode of production were social and not individual/private. Marx is clear that it is only because of the capitalist mode of production that worker co-operatives could develop and the worker co-operative, too, is a transitional form that will “sprout” something new.

The point I am trying to make in this rather long introduction, is that with the movement of time, we should expect to see new forms of association emerge, made possible by earlier forms, if only through attempts to resolve their contradictions. During Marx’s time there were ‘consumer’ and ‘producer’ (i.e. worker) co-operatives and these two types of co-operative are now widespread across the world. Neither of these forms of association have so far been adopted as the form of association for a university 1)Although one is not far away: UniCoop, a consumer co-op in Mexico is due to begin teaching in September 2016, but a more recent co-operative form has been applied in higher education: the social/solidarity/multi-stakeholder co-operative (from hereon, the ‘social co-operative’).

Social co-operatives as a new, transitional form

Social co-operatives are a historically recent form of association, emerging in the 1970s, gradually obtaining legal status in some countries. In 2011, the ‘World Standards of Social Co-operatives’ was ratified after a two-year global consultation process. So we are dealing with a new form of association that was not available to Marx or to the founders of most 20th century universities. To my knowledge, only one such university exists: Mondragon, in the Basque region of Spain, where its membership is comprised of workers (academics and non-academic employee-owners), students, and ‘collaborators’ (members of the community, local business, etc.) In its current form, Mondragon University only dates back to 1997.

If you read the World Standards of Social Co-operatives, you’ll see there are essentially five defining characteristics of social co-opertives, at the heart of which is the multi-stakeholder membership structure. Social co-operatives are therefore distinct from the traditional ‘worker’ or ‘consumer’ co-operative forms, which recognise just one membership type. The ‘social co-operative’ typically incorporates three membership types: worker, user/consumer, and supporter, thereby acknowledging the different ‘stakes’ that a community of people may have in the co-operative and the shared interests of all member-types in the mission and sustainability of the organisations. 2)I recommend Ridley-Duff’s paper, which gives a good history of solidarity co-ops in the UK

‘Social co-operatives’ are constitutionally democratic forms of enterprise comprising two or more types of membership. Each of the stakeholder groups is formally represented in the governing structures of the organisation on the basis of one-person one-vote.  Legal recognition for social co-operatives was first achieved in Italy in 1991, and in the UK, such ‘multi-stakeholder co-operative societies’ are now regulated by the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 or the Companies Act 2006. The multiple forms of membership reflect the combined interests of the organisation within its social context and not surprisingly, social co-operatives typically pursue social objectives through the provision of social services, such as healthcare and education. For example, since 2011, over 850 schools in the UK have become multi-stakeholder co-operatives. This particular model of democratic ownership and governance is an increasingly popular form of co-operative organisation and there are successful examples of different sizes and services provided, demonstrating its flexibility as a modern organisational form.

University governance: Still ‘not fit for modern times’?

A glance at the literature on university governance in the UK shows that a number of incremental policy changes have led to a more widespread corporate form of university governance, starting with the Jarratt report (1985), which established the Vice Chancellor as Chief Executive, then the Dearing report (1997), which reduced the number of members on the governing body, and the Lambert report (2003), which stated that participatory governance by a community of scholars was not ‘fit for modern times’, and recommended a voluntary code of governance for the HE sector (Shattock, 2006). Each of these government sponsored reviews and subsequent policy and regulatory changes has been conducted in response to the changing historical context of the corporate form in general, most notably the Cadbury report (1992), the Hampel report (1998), the Higgs report (2003) and the development of the current UK Corporate Governance Code (Shattock, 2006). Thus, a history of the development of university governance and management has to be seen in the broader context of changing corporate forms and the underlying dynamic of political, economic and social contradictions.

Universities have historically been established in different legal forms but since the 1988 Education Reform Act, most new universities have been established as Higher Education Corporations (HEC). This is changing yet again, as the most recent regulatory changes since the Browne review have been to  encourage the more rapid establishment of new forms of higher education providers with degree awarding powers (so-called ‘new entrants’ to the market), including for-profit private institutions. 3)The historical trajectory in the UK has for decades been a shift away from universities that are directly funded by public money and self-governed by member-academics, towards a system today where public money is ‘laundered’ through the student loan system and transformed into private funds that are paid by the individual student for a service regulated by consumer law.

What we need is a clear and coherent picture of university governance from a historical perspective and to introduce the ‘social co-operative’ as a new historical form of institutional governance that appears to be compatible with collegial structures (Cook, 2013) and speaks to many of the concerns raised over increased corporate governance structures and hierarchical management of universities (Bacon, 2014) by providing an alternative for existing governors, academics and students to consider. Until recently, universities in the UK have been neither publicly or privately owned corporations. The so-called ‘public universities’ in the UK are effectively owned by their current governors.  What we need, I think, is to encourage a different way of thinking about the role, value and form of higher education institutions in society as ‘social’ organisations sustained through solidarity and co-operation among their members. We need to acknowledge that current hierarchical and undemocratic models of governance alienate and de-motivate university staff (Bacon, 2014) and that co-operative values and principles are attractive to both staff and students (Cook, 2013). We need to compare forms of governance in both higher education and social cooperatives and use this as a stimulus for critical reflection on the practical and contemporary issue of democracy in higher education. I think we need to respond to the growing ‘democratic deficit’ in higher education (McGettigan, 2014), by questioning university governance in light of constitutional innovations in cooperative organisations.

Back to Marx

As I indicated in the first section of these notes, I think a history of university needs to be undertaken from the perspective that Marx provides; that is, a view of organisations as social forms of capital that is becoming increasingly social, past the point of private property and joint stock to common forms of ownership. We are now past the point that worker co-operatives reached by reversing the relation between labour and capital because the social co-operative form has extended democratic control and common ownership of capital beyond worker members of the co-operative to include users/consumers and other beneficiaries (which could include representatives of the state/public).

Peter Hudis notes that Marx regarded worker co-ops as a new form of production, whereas joint-stock firms were the highest form of capitalist production. (Hudis, 2011, 179) The socialisation of property that the joint-stock firm represents is only that. It did nothing to change the relation between capital and labour, whereas worker co-ops turn the capital relation on its head.  Yet worker co-ops, because of their single-member character, are still limited by the fact that they are subject to value production through the exchange relation: Workers are producers who require consumers. They do not produce goods and services to directly satisfy their own needs. “In this sense”, write Hudis, “they still remain within capitalism, even as they contain social relations that point to its possible transcendence.” (180)

Does the social co-operative form represent a further progression towards the transcendence of capitalism? A social co-operative, at least in an ideal sense, is a form of association owned in common and democratically controlled by both producer and consumer members, establishing a direct satisfaction of needs between members. To what extent this overcomes the value-form relation of exchange is not entirely clear to me at this point. Value production still determines the social co-operative in its members’ relations with other firms, with whom they enter into exchange relations, but to what extent does exchange (i.e. for the purpose of exchange value) take place between members of the commonly owned social co-operative? Is the product or more often the service that the social co-op produces a ‘commodity’ as defined by Marx? Is the use value of that service being produced by workers who are alienated from the means of production for the primary purpose of exchange? It doesn’t seem like it to me. A better question might be: does the labour performed by workers in the social co-op take the dual form of concrete and abstract labour? Yes, to the extent that the wider social relations of value production in capitalist society continues to determine  their needs.

I am not suggesting that the social co-operative form overcomes the capitalist form, but that it might represent an advanced transitional form of social association between individuals. I think that the social co-op goes further than the worker co-op form in constituting a dialectical response to capital and a more socially encompassing “safe space” (Egan, 1990) against the determinate logic of value.  Egan, referring to worker co-ops, concludes that the ‘‘potential for degeneration [of worker co-ops into capitalist firms] must be seen to lie not within the cooperative form of organisation itself, but in the contradiction between it and its capitalist environment. Degeneration is not, however, determined by this contradiction’’ (1990, 81). It seems to me that the social co-op form extends the “safe space” to include direct exchange between producers and consumers (who are ultimately owners of common capital) and has greater potential to resist degeneration.

References   [ + ]

1. Although one is not far away: UniCoop, a consumer co-op in Mexico is due to begin teaching in September 2016
2. I recommend Ridley-Duff’s paper, which gives a good history of solidarity co-ops in the UK
3. The historical trajectory in the UK has for decades been a shift away from universities that are directly funded by public money and self-governed by member-academics, towards a system today where public money is ‘laundered’ through the student loan system and transformed into private funds that are paid by the individual student for a service regulated by consumer law.

The treadmill of capitalism

“In a society in which material wealth is the form of social wealth, increased productivity results either in a greater amount of wealth or in the possibility of a corresponding reduction in labor time. This is not the case when value is the form of wealth. Because the magnitude of value is solely a function of the socially-average labor time expended, the introduction of a new method of increasing productivity only results in a short-term increase in value yielded per unit time – that is, only as long as socially-average labor time remains determined by the older method of production. As soon as the newer level of productivity becomes socially general, the value yielded per unit time falls back to its original level. Thus, because the form of wealth is temporally determined, increased productivity only effects a new norm of socially-necessary labor time. The amount of value yielded per unit time remains the same. The necessity for the expenditure of labor time is consequently not diminished, but is retained. That time, moreover, becomes intensified. The productivity of concrete labor thus interacts with the abstract temporal form in a manner that drives the latter forward while reinforcing the compulsion it exerts on the producers. The value-form of wealth is constituted by and, hence, necessitates, the expenditure of human labor time regardless of the degree to which productivity is developed. The treadmill effect just outlined is immanent to the temporal determination of value. It implies a historical dynamic of production that cannot be grasped when Marx’s “law of value” is understood as an equilibrium theory of the market and when the differences between value and material wealth, abstract and concrete labor, are overlooked. That treadmill dynamic is the initial determination of what Marx developed as central to capitalism: capitalism necessarily must constantly accumulate to stand still. The dynamic becomes somewhat more complicated when one considers capital – “self-valorizing value.” The goal of capitalist production is not value, but the constant expansion of surplus value – the amount of value produced per unit time above and beyond that required for the workers’ reproduction. The category of surplus value not only reveals that the social surplus is indeed created by the workers, but also that the temporal determination of the surplus implies a particular logic of growth, as well as a particular form of the process of production.”

Source: Postone and Brick (1982) Critical Pessimism and the Limits of Traditional Marxism, Theory and Society, 11 (5) 636.

Higher and higher education

“The university that we need to create is not another institutional form of higher education, the University of Knowledge. It is, rather, the unbounded limit of what we know about ourselves, that is higher and higher education, which can emerge in any number of sustainable and life enhancing forms.”

Source: Neary, Mike (2012) Beyond teaching in public: the university as a form of social knowing. In: Towards teaching in public: reshaping the modern university. Continuum. ISBN 9781441124791

The question of praxis

I’ve been reading Werner Bonefeld’s excellent new book in which he provides a very clear summary of its structure and main arguments, which I have reproduced below. I intend to write an extended review of it in due course, reflecting on the state of critical theory in education studies.

Bonefeld, Werner (2014) Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy, London: Bloomsbury, pp. 10-12.

“Helmut reichelt is right when he argues that the time has come to reconsider the purpose of reconstruction, moving it on from an attempt at finding the veritable marx to the development of the critical themes and insights that the new reading of marx has established as fundamental to the critique of ‘the monstrous objective power’ of economic things. In distinction to the new reading, the development of the critical themes and insights rests on the acceptance that Marx’s account is fundamentally ambivalent, beyond reconstruction. This point is most strongly made by Michael Heinrich. He establishes that Marx’s revolutionary break with classical political economy is marked by the pains of transition, leaving a multi-layered argument that, say, in the case of the conception of abstract labour, which is the value producing labour, overlaps with naturalistic definitions that derive from the tradition of classical political economy.

This book develops the critique of political economy as a critical social theory of economic objectivity, beyond critical reconstruction. At its best, the critique of political economy thinks against the spell of the dazzling economic forms. It wants to get behind the secret of our world, to demystify its fateful appearance as a force of economic nature. Critical theory does not think about (reified) things. rather, it thinks ‘out of these things’. For this task, the insights of the new reading are fundamental, especially the argument that the capitalist social relations manifest themselves in the inverted form of objectively valid, seemingly natural economic abstractions. Yet, taken by itself, it does not explain the social character of economic objectivity. What is objectified? in distinction to the new reading, I argue with Adorno that the ‘movement of society’ is ‘antagonistic from the outset’. Further, I argue that the critique of political economy is not just a critique of the economic form of society. it is also a critique of the political form of society, which I develop first by means of an argument about the relationship between world market and national state, and then by an account of the state as the political form of the capitalist social relations.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part contains a connected argument about the character of a critique of political economy. It contains a chapter (Chapter 2) on the meaning of a critique of political economy, which i develop with the help of the new reading. The chapter explores the difficulty of determining the subject matter of economics, expounds the classical marxist interpretation of economic laws and develops Marx’s characterization of his work as a critique of economic categories as critical theory of social constitution. Chapter 3 develops the implications of this characterization further into an argument about the capitalist forms of social practice, which I develop with the help of Adorno’s negative dialectics.

The second part develops the class character of the law of value in three connected chapters. In distinction to the new reading, it argues that the social antagonism is the logical and historical premise of the law of value. Chapter 4 argues that the hidden secret of the law of value is the forceful expropriation of the labourer from the means of subsistence. In this context I argue that the attempt of the new reading to develop the economic categories by means of logical exposition banishes the class relationship from the critique of political economy. In distinction, the chapter argues that the existence of a class of labourers with no independent access to the means of subsistence is the fundamental premise of the capitalist social relations. Chapter 5 develops this argument further into a critical theory of class as the objective category of the capitalist form of wealth and thus of the entire system of social reproduction. The law of value is premised on the force of law-making violence that established a class of surplus value producers who depend for their life on the sale of their labour power. Chapter 6 extends discussion of the creation and reproduction of a class of dispossessed producers of surplus value into an argument about abstract labour as the historically specific labour of capitalist wealth, of value. It argues that the value-producing labour manifests the force of law-making violence in the form of an economic dictate of a time-made abstract. Social wealth manifests itself in exchange as the labour of ‘socially necessary abstract labour time’.

The third part develops the critique of political economy as a critique of the form of the state. I reckon that the law of value has no independent economic reality. It does not dominate anything and anyone, nor does it instantiate itself – just like that. Value relations are relations of political economy, and political economy presupposes the force of law making violence as the premise of its – civilized – appearance as an exchange relationship between the sellers and buyers of labour power as equal legal subjects, governed by the rule of law. Chapter 7 establishes the world market as the categorical imperative of the capitalist form of wealth. The world market asserts itself as a coercive force over labour in production. However, coercion is not a socio-economic category. It is a political category, which characterizes the state as the political form of bourgeois society. I argue that the world market society of capital entails the (national) state in its concept. Chapter 8 focuses on the state as the political form of bourgeois society. In distinction to traditional accounts that derive the state from the economic, I hold that the law of value is premised on depoliticized exchange relations, and I argue that the state is the concentrated force of socio-economic depoliticization. Fragments apart, Marx’s promise of a critique of the form of state did not materialize. The chapter therefore develops its account with reference to Hegel’s political philosophy and Smith’s classical political economy and its further development in neo-liberal thought, to make sense of Marx’s characterization of the state as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. The conclusion returns to Marx to argue that the state is the political form of capitalist society.

The fourth and final part assesses the anti-capitalist implications of the critique of political economy as a critical social theory. Chapter 9 presents forms of anti-capitalism that personalize the critique of capitalism as the power of money or the power of imperial force, or both. Here, the critical notion that the social individual personifies the economic categories regresses into the condemnation of hated forms of capitalism that are identified with the interest of particular persons. The personalized critique of capitalism entails the elements of antisemitism from the outset, which the chapter explores as a perverted critique of capitalism. Chapter 10 is the final chapter. It summarizes the argument by exploring Adorno’s demand for a praxis that fights barbarism. Contrary to the rumour about critical theory, its entirely negative critique of existing conditions does not entail an impoverished praxis. Rather, it entails the question of praxis – what really does it mean to say ‘no’ in a society that is governed by real economic abstractions?”

Life’s too short. Push the boundaries, kick up a fuss, organise with friends.

Some highlights from two articles by Paul Chatterton, Stuart Hodkinson and Jenny Pickerill. They were (and continue to be) influential on me around the time we established the Social Science Centre

From: Chatterton, P. (2008) Demand the Possible: Journeys in Changing our World as a Public Activist-ScholarAntipode Vol. 40 No. 3.

“Sometimes I wonder why I work in a university at all. I spend most of my time outside of it, organising community events, helping out at a local free space, supporting local co-ops, doing asylum seeker support, going to activist gatherings and demonstrations, helping with campaigns, putting on film screenings, and hosting radical speakers. I suppose I have become someone who blends activism and the academy. As a result, life is busy, challenging, confusing, but generally enjoyable.

Then I remember why I still work in a university. It’s because I’m an activist-scholar, someone who sees the value in radical education and the public debate of ideas which challenge the norm. I bring my activism into the university for a number of reasons. In spite of the way they are being re-engineered, universities are still amazing places of encounter, conflict, diversity and debate (not to mention resources), and it is crucial that we find ways to defend and expand these and open them up to others. Engaging with the activist world, while it raises the eyebrows of many senior colleagues, excites and inspires my students. It reminds me of what Paulo Freire once said about the purpose of education: it is the practice of freedom. Defending education as a path to freedom and not as a route to debt, precarious jobs, and conformity is one of the most important political tasks of our time. And it’s also an essential antidote to the endless consumer parade which student life has become, as well as to the efforts of British Aerospace, KPMG, Deloitte, and their ilk, to parcel up their futures.

So how does all this work? What does it mean to be an activist-scholar? How do you promote radical ideas and debates within the academy?

… The author provides three examples and concludes:

Our job is to make alternatives seem feasible and sensible, not crazy and left field. It is a battle of ideas, words and practices about a better world, a battle, alas, that too many professors forget once they have joined the elite club. Here’s a few things we can all do:

  • Introduce as much challenging material into our teaching as possible—including street work, innovative assessment, learning radical histories, outside engagements.
  • Push for new courses in universities which actively promote engagement, campaigning and civic activism.
  • Support open source and online publishing and challenge metrics.
  • Inform ourselves about who owns the journals and books we publish in. Which large firms are behind them? Support the ones we feel comfortable with and tell those we avoid why.
  • Spread the word on corporations who have too much influence in
    our work lives and get together with others to challenge them.
  • Try and create publicly accessible versions of our work in the form of pamphlets, tip sheets or websites.

Life’s too short. Push the boundaries, kick up a fuss, organise with friends. Don’t let management push you around! Challenge lazy, overpaid professors, connect with inspiring movements for change, and turn your work places into spaces of joy, hope and rebellion!”

From: The Autonomous Geographies Collective (2010) Beyond Scholar Activism: Making Strategic Interventions Inside and Outside the Neoliberal UniversityACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 2010, 9 (2), 245-275.

“We need to reject the false distinction between academia and wider society in conceptualisations of valid sites of struggle and knowledge production, and to find ways to research and engage collectively and politically, rather than individually.

What unites past and present generations of scholar activists is their desire to bring together their academic work with their political ideals to further social change and work directly with marginal groups or those in struggle. This work goes beyond simply trying to understand the politics of our research and argues that our work is political.

In recent years, human geographers have sought to challenge this inertia by showcasing their own activist engagements as scholar activists, while at the same time holding a mirror up to their engagements in highly reflexive accounts. Pain (2003) usefully categorises these and reflects that there are at least three ways to engage beyond the academy. The first approach, combining activism and research, fuses politics and academic research agendas into one coherent strategy and methodology working closely with resisting others and social movements… Perhaps unsurprisingly, some have also produced valuable insights into the often torturous psyche of the academic-activist, forever caught between two worlds and sets of people with competing priorities, expectations, and pressures. These authors bring out the necessity of academics’ attempts to make their teaching and research fit together with their desire for social change, with all the obstacles, dilemmas, and challenges this poses.

The second approach is participatory research which in general aims to “improve practice rather than to produce knowledge” (Elliot, 1991: 49) and gives the ‘subject’ far greater involvement in the research (see for example, England, 1994; Pain, 2003; Hayward et al., 2004; Kitchen and Hubbard, 1999; Cahill, 2007; Pain and Francis, 2003; Pain and Kindon, 2007; Kindon et al., 2007). Within participatory research and development there is a strong critique of exploitative and unaccountable research, especially “externally imposed and expert-oriented forms of research and planning” (Cooke and Kothari, 2001:5) which are most concerned with extracting knowledge. In response, most forms of participatory research aim to place people at the centre of research agendas.

Finally, Pain (2003) argues that ‘policy research’ might be traditionally seen as ‘top-down’ and ‘reactionary’ but it “can also be a viable strategy in critical action research” (655) (see also Pollard et al., 2000; Burgess, 2005). Many geographers do get involved in policy-oriented research (see for example Dorling et al. 2007; Parkinson, 2006; Pike and Tomany, 2008). Clearly, it is difficult to assess the impact of this kind of work on pushing policy in a more progressive direction and much of it remains inside the epistemic community of policy-makers and academics, rarely belonging to, or coming from, engagement with those affected on the ground.

The authors provide examples and go on to suggest seven principles towards a strategy for scholar activism:

Drawing upon more anarchist and libertarian socialist interpretations of collectivism (the acceptance of human interdependence and the belief that society will be bettered through the achievement of collective goals rather than individual aspirations, and the importance of the commons), for us there is a need to approach our working practices with more desire for horizontality in organisation, an emphasis upon sharing and co-operation, more consensual decision-making, an awareness of inherent unequal power relations, and finally a fundamental acceptance of freedom as individuals within a collective. It is upon these broad and ambiguous fundamentals that we wish to suggest seven principles towards a strategy for scholar activism.

    1. In and against the neo-liberal university
    2. Recognise the emancipatory potential of education, research and publications
    3. Create a global knowledge commons
    4. Be aware of our own action research footprint
    5. Organise ourselves into collective action networks
    6. Be the change we want to see
    7. Make collective strategic interventions which are accountable and relevant to social movements”