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”

Communism in practice: Directly social labour

While reading this extract below from Peter Hudis’ wonderful book, keep in mind the already existing practices of P2P production, such as free software and open education. As Michel Bauwens and others recognise, these are examples of a proto-mode of post-capitalist production. They conform to much of what Marx describes (below) as the features of directly social labour but have yet to overcome the determinate imperative of value production i.e. they do not replace the production of value but remain reliant on it. Tony Smith and Guido Starosta discuss this limitation in detail.

Source: Hudis, P. (2013) Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, Leiden: Brill. pp. 110-113.

“‘Now if this assumption is made, the general character of labour would not be given to it only by exchange; its assumed communal character would determine participation in the products. The communal character of production would from the outset make the product into a communal, general one. The exchange initially occurring in production, which would not be an exchange of exchange values but of activities determined by communal needs and communal purposes, would include from the beginning the individual’s participation in the communal world of products…labour would be posited as general labour prior to exchange, i.e., the exchange of products would not in any way be the medium mediating the participation of the individual in general production. Mediation of course has to take place.’ (Marx, Grundrisse, 1986: 108)

This is a remarkable passage that is worth close analysis. First, Marx acknowledges that labour would have a ‘general’ character in a new society. However, its generality would be radically different from what exists in capitalism, where discrete acts of individual labour become connected to one another (or are made general) through the act of commodity-exchange. In contrast, labour becomes general in the new society prior to the exchange of products, on the basis of the ‘the communal character of production’ itself. The community distributes the elements of production according to the individuals’ needs, instead of being governed by social forms that operate independently of their deliberation. Labour is general insofar as the community directly decides the manner and form of production. Marx is not referring here to the existence of small, isolated communities that operate in a world dominated by value-production. As noted above, Marx never adhered to the notion that socialism was possible in one country, let alone in one locale. He is pointing, instead, to a communal network of associations in which value-production has been superseded on a systemic level. Labour is therefore directly social, not indirectly social. Second, Marx acknowledges that exchange of some sort would exist in a new society. However, exchange would be radically different from what prevails in capitalism, which is governed by the exchange of commodities. Instead of being based on exchange-values, prices, or markets, distribution would be governed by an exchange of activities that are ‘determined by communal needs and communal purposes’. The latter determines the exchange of activities, instead of being determined by the exchange of products that operate independently of it. Third, Marx acknowledges that social mediation would exist in a new society. However, mediation would be radically different from that under capitalism, where it has an abstract character, since ‘mediation takes place through the exchange of commodities, through exchange value’ and money. In socialism, in contrast, ‘the presupposition is itself mediated, i.e., communal production, community as the basis of production, is assumed. The labour of the individual is from the outset taken as [directly] social labour’.

Marx’s distinction between indirectly and directly social labour is central to his evolving concept of a postcapitalist society – not only in the Grundrisse but also (as I will attempt to show) in much of his later work. He contends that in capitalism the ‘social character of production is established only post festum by the elevation of the products into exchange values and the exchange of these exchange values’, whereas in socialism, ‘The social character of labour is presupposed, and participation in the world of products, in consumption, is not mediated by exchange between mutually independent labourers of products of labour. It is mediated by social production within which the individual carries on his activity’. Marx is envisaging a totally new kind of social mediation, one that is direct, instead of indirect, sensuous, instead of abstract: ‘For the fact is that labour on the basis of exchange values presupposes that neither the labour of the individual nor his product is directly general, but that it acquires this form only through objective mediation by means of a form of money distinct from it’. In sum, a society is governed by exchange-value only inso-far as the sociality of labour is established not through itself, but through an objective form independent of itself. Such a society is an alienated one, since (as Marx showed from as early as his writings of 1843–4), the domination of individuals by objective forms of their own making is precisely what is most problematic and indeed perverse about capitalism.

Marx proceeds to go deeper into what he means by directly social ‘communal production’ by addressing the role of time in a new society. He writes, ‘Ultimately, all economy is a matter of economy of time’. All societies strive to reduce the amount of time spent on producing and reproducing the necessities of life. No society is more successful at doing so than capitalism, in which production-relations force individual units of labour to conform to the average amount of time necessary to produce a given commodity. Since this compulsion issues from within the production-process, instead of from a political authority which lords over it from outside, capitalism is far more effective at generating efficiencies of time than were precapitalist modes of production. Marx repeatedly refers to this as capitalism’s ‘civilising mission’. He says this because the development and satisfaction of the individual ultimately depends upon the saving of time so that life can be freed up for pursuits other than engaging in material production.

But how does the economisation of time relate to a new society governed by ‘communal production’? Marx indicates that it becomes just as important as in capitalism, although it exists in a different form and for a different purpose:

If we presuppose communal production, the time factor naturally remains essential. The less time society requires to produce corn, livestock, etc., the more time it wins for other production, material or spiritual…Economy of time, as well as the planned distribution of labour time over the various branches of production, therefore, remains the first economic law if communal production is taken as the basis. It becomes a law even to a much higher degree. However, this is essentially different from the measurement of exchange values (of labours or products of labour) by labour time.

Marx does not detail exactly how the economisation of time operates in a society governed by communal production; the text mentions no single mechanism or lever for accomplishing this. However, in light of his earlier writings, we can surmise that he sees the motivation for the economisation of time in a new society as resting upon the effort to achieve what he called in 1844 a ‘totality of manifestations of life’. When society is freed from the narrow drive to augment value as an end in itself, it can turn its attention to supplying the multiplicity of needs and wants that are integral to the social individual. Instead of being consumed by having and possessing, individuals can now focus upon what is given short shrift in societies governed by value-production – their being, their manifold sensuous and intellectual needs, whether ‘material or spiritual’. The more people get in touch with their universality of needs, the greater the incentive to economise time, to reduce the amount of hours engaged in material production, so that such multiple needs (such as cultural, social, or intellectual enjoyment) can be pursued and satisfied. In a word, whereas in capitalism the incentive to economise time is provided by an abstract standard, exchange-value, in socialism it is provided by the concrete sensuous needs of the individuals themselves. The drive to economise time no longer comes from outside the individuals, from value’s need to grow big with value, but from within, from the quest to manifest the totality of the individuals’ intellectual, sensuous, and spiritual capabilities.”

The general intellect, mass intellectuality, and the value-form

Source: Smith, Tony (2013) The ‘General Intellect’ in the Grundrisse and Beyond. In: In Marx’s Laboratory. Critical Interpretations of the Grundrisse, Leiden: Brill.

“I believe Virno and Vercellone understate the role of the general intellect in the era extending from the first Industrial Revolution to Fordism, while overstating its flourishing in contemporary capitalism. But they are surely correct to stress how mass-intellectuality has become increasingly important as a productive force. Does this development push Marx’s theory of value into the trash heap of outdated theories? Not if the main form of social organisation continues to be the dissociated sociality of generalised commodity-production. Not if social reproduction continues to be mediated by the circulation of things, that is, the sale of commodities for money. And not if social reproduction continues to centre on the reproduction of the capital/wage labour relation. All these things continue to define global capitalism today. As long as value-relations are in place, the accomplishments of diffuse intellectuality will tend to be either appropriated by capital as another sort of ‘free gift’ (as occurs, for example, when corporations make use of ‘open-source’ computing code), or else pushed to the margins of social life. Marx’s value-theory will retain descriptive accuracy and explanatory power as long as this remains the case. To comprehend the production of wealth we must indeed take into account mass intellectuality, and grant it increasing importance vis-à-vis simple labour. But this has little to do with Marx’s theory of value, at least not with the most satisfactory all-things-considered interpretation of that theory.”

See also: Is Socialism Relevant in the “Networked Information Age”? A Critical Assessment of The Wealth of Networks.

Student demands for democratic control over universities

ours_to_master

These notes are the start of an ongoing attempt to document each instance where occupying students or/and academics include greater democratic governance among their demands from university management (and where they don’t, why?). My gut feeling is that forms of self-management and worker control (among whom I include students) is increasingly becoming a key demand when students go into occupation. There is a long tradition of workers’ control in other organisations (including an entire academic field of study) and I’d like to think about how self-management of higher education can be achieved (in theory and in practice). The list is currently overwhelming centred on the UK, but I’m interested in examples from anywhere and from any time. Regardless of your specific interest in worker control of higher education, you may find the list a convenient way into student occupation websites and their demands whilst in occupation. If you can add to any of these examples below, please leave a comment or email me. Thanks. 

Manchester, May 2015: “we demand a student-staff body, directly elected by students and academic and non-academic staff, responsible for making all managerial decisions of the institution. The university is nothing but the sum of its parts. Students and workers are at the essence of this institution and thus should have direct and democratic control.”

Kings College London, March 2015: “As a high profile London University we need to demonstrate that is no longer acceptable to run our universities on the basis of profit; instead it needs to be done democratically by the students and staff members. We want everyone’s voices to be heard, not just those at the very top who operate with under a thin veil of transparency.” [Demands]

University of the Arts, London, March 2015: “We are protesting against cuts to education in general, the lack of democracy, diverse representation and student input within this institution, and the continued undermining of our rights to free education.” [Demands]

London School of Economics, March 2015: “1) An open discussion with the directors and pro-directors of LSE, within the first week of summer term, on university democracy to clarify to students and staff how the current system works. This will be the starting point for a wider and more inclusive public discussion on the issue of accountability and failing democratic institutions, leading to concrete proposals for improvement to the current system. 2) We demand the formation of an Independent Review Committee comprising of academic staff (1/3), non-academic staff (1/3) and students (1/3). The role of this committee will be to investigate the current system and propose reforms. 3)  All Committee meetings should be minuted and these minutes should be published in less than 7 working days so as to be publicly available to LSE students and staff.”

New University, Amsterdam, February 2015: “1. Democratisation and decentralisation of university governance.”

Sussex, 2012: “A commission of students, staff and lecturers to be formed. With full remit to re-evaluate procedures and channels for holding management accountable as well as reviewing and extending student and workers’ say in these decisions.”

Edinburgh University, 2011: “Universities should be democratically organised: directly controlled by staff and students.”

Glasgow University, 2011: “The Hetherington Research Club to be returned to democratic control by students and staff, with the return of the block grant.”

University College London, November 2010: “We demand an increase in the number of students on the council. These students should be directly elected through UCLU. We assert that all staff of UCL have an equal right to take part in the decision making process of the university. We therefore demand that UCL includes non-academic staff on the council. We require concrete evidence of a plan of action that includes specific time-measured goals for implementing these changes, to be discussed at the next Council meeting. Regarding the academic board, we wish to re-implement genuine democracy through an increase in student representation and the re-introduction of elected Deans.”

Occupations that don’t explicitly demand democratisation of the university

Edinburgh, May 2015

Salford, May 2015

Goldsmiths, London, March 2015: [Demands]

Goldsmiths, London, March 2011

Warwick, 2011

Sheffield, 2011

Liverpool, 2011

Royal Holloway, 2011

University of Brighton, 2011

Birmingham, 2011

Birmingham, 2010

Warwick, 2010

Cambridge, 2010

SOAS, 2010

Lincoln, 2010

University of Leeds, 2010

London South Bank, 2010

University of East London, 2010

Newcastle University, 2010

Cardiff, 2010

University of the West of England, 2010

Plymouth, 2010

Manchester University, 2010

Manchester universities, 2010

Manchester Metropolitan University, 2010

Bristol, 2010

Roehampton University, 2010

Exeter, 2010

Outside UK:

University of California, 2009:

UC Santa Cruz [consolidated]

UC Davis;

San Francisco State University: “That the university system be run by the students, faculty, and staff. Not administrators.” << Not clear if this is the removal of administrator roles altogether or anti-democratic exclusion of administrators from decision-making.

Historical:

Columbia University, 1968

Sorbonne, 1968

Nanterre, 1968

Misc:

List of university occupations

Occupation Count!

The ‘Bourgeois University’ and self-management of knowledge production

Extract from Ernest Mandel’s speech (1970) The Changing Role of the Bourgeois University. Via Krystian Szadkowski.

#solidarity to UCL, Goldsmiths, KCL, LSE, UALMaagdenhuis

The university can be the cradle of a real revolution.

We must immediately include a warning in the argument. Whenever we speak of ‘the university,’ we mean the people of the university collectively, that is, the teachers and the students. We do not mean the university as an institution.

As an institution, the university is incorporated in the existing social structure. Students, professors, and workers cannot finance and maintain any universities in the final analysis as long as the social surplus value is not collectivized, that is, as long as we live in a capitalist society.

In the long run the university as an institution remains bound with golden chains to the power of the ruling class. Without a radical transformation of society itself the university cannot undergo any lasting radical transformation.

But what is impossible for the university as an institution is possible for students as individuals and in groups. And what is possible for students as individuals and groups can, on the collective level, temporarily emerge as a possibility for the university as a whole.

As a permanent institution, the university remains subject to the control of the ruling class. But wherever the struggle of the university collective for self-management assumes such scope that a temporary breakthrough in this area occurs, then for a short period the university becomes a ‘school of self-management’ for the entire people. This was what happened in the Sorbonne in Paris in May 1968; this is what happened, among other place, in Chicago in May 1970. These examples were extremely limited in scope and duration. But under favourable circumstances the attraction of such examples for the broad masses can be very promising.

In a certain sense this is the central problem of ‘programmed social change’. Programming for whom and by whom? That is the question. The argument advanced by the opponents of democratic self-management in the universities as well as in the plants deals with competence. Society is divided into ‘competent’ bosses and ‘incompetent’ workers, as they see it. Let us leave aside the question of whether the ‘competence’ of the bosses is such as to justify their retaining the function of decision-making. Whenever we compare this proclaimed competence with the results, at least insofar as society is concerned, then there are at least a few reasons for doubt.

The decisive argument against this concept, however, is not affected by such a value judgment. With the development of computers and the functionalized university, a system is emerging in which the control of levers of economic power, the concentration of economic power goes hand in hand with a growing monopolization of access to a no less horrible concentration of information.

Because the same social minority keeps a tight grip on power and information while scientific knowledge becomes more and more specialized and fragmented, a growing hiatus is developing between detailed professional competence and the concentration of information that makes it possible to make centralized strategic decisions.

The members of the board of directors of a multinational corporation can leave thousands of small decisions to ‘competent professionals.’ But since the directors alone have the final outcome of the information-gathering process at their disposal, they alone are ‘competent’ to make the central strategic decisions.

Self-management overcomes this hiatus by giving the masses the necessary information to equip them to understand what is involved in the strategic central decisions. Any member of the mass who is ‘competent’ in this or that detail plays a participating role in making these decisions whenever cooperation and not competition among individuals is the social norm.”

All power to the communes!

Research and resistance

Below are some notes for something I’m writing but have decided not to use, mainly because I’m relying too heavily on Postone’s extensive though singular critique of Habermas. I originally wrote it reflecting on the ‘Seven principles towards a strategy for scholar activism’ as set out by The Autonomous Geographies Collective. One of the principles (#4) is ‘Be aware of our own action research footprint’ and it got me thinking about my work on the SSC as ‘action research’. What interests me is that Kemmis, one of the main theorists of action research, is grounding the latest development of his theory in the ‘communicative action’ of Habermas, who Moishe Postone pulls apart through his reading of Marx. So there’s something to be worked out here if ‘action research’ informed by critical theory, is used to describe aspects of my own research. 

I want to reflect on the Social Science Centre as an ‘action research’ project, conscious that while it is beyond the university, it has been and continues to be a persistent and ever present part of my research inside the University of Lincoln. As such, the SSC might be understood to form part of my ‘action research footprint’ according to the broad definition given by Carr and Kemmis.

“Action research is simply a form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices, their understanding of these practices, and the situations in which the practices are carried out.” (Carr and Kemmis 1986: 162)

Although we have never collectively defined our work as action research, members of the SSC are continuously engaged in the type of ‘self-reflective enquiry’ described by Carr and Kemmis, not with the aim of producing a ‘research outcome’ but so as “to improve the rationality and justice of [our] own practices, [our] understanding of these practices, and the situations in which the practices are carried out”. For myself, it is a form of “prefigurative practice” understood in the way that I discuss in Winn (2015) and also accords with the sixth principle of scholar activism of ‘being the change we want to see’. Yet the fourth and six principles of scholar activism listed above are not adequately developed to correctly convey the way I conceive the Social Science Centre: it is action research by default not by design; it is prefigurative practice but grounded in a negative critique; but neither is it, for me, the practice of resistance.

As with our pedagogical approach, the SSC as a ‘participatory action research project’ is informed by a critique of the contradictory relationship between labour and capital and the emancipatory potential inherent in the commodity-producing form of labour. From this position, labour is understood dialectically as both socially constituted and mediating (Postone, 1993) and so the ‘methods’ of our ‘research’ are understood to be constituted by our immanent social conditions as well as prefigurative of the emancipatory potential of our collective work. There is no place outside the totality of capital and its determinate social forms.

In terms of being ‘critical, participatory action research’, the Social Science Centre aligns with Kemmis’ recent definition (2008). Critical participatory action research is:

  1. Participatory and collective research to achieve effective­ historical consciousness in and of practice as praxis
  2. Research for critical (self-) reflection
  3. Research that opens communicative space
  4. Research to transform reality
  5. Research with a practical aim
  6. Research with emancipatory aims

No-one would deny the importance of needing a safe communicative space – indeed the SSC is just that – yet Kemmis’ definition draws heavily from Habermas’ theory of ‘communicative action’ which is achieved through the ‘intersubjective’ social relations of the project’s participants. For Habermas, intersubjectivity is linguistically grounded:

“As historical and social beings we find ourselves always already in a linguistically structured life­ world. In the forms of communication through which we reach an understanding with one another about something in the world and about ourselves, we encounter a transcending power.” (Habermas quoted in Kemmis, 2008, 128)

From this standpoint, Kemmis defines ‘critical’ in terms of “the quality of the argument, and the ways people participate in it.” (129) Thus critical participatory action research is ultimately reduced to “the conversation”, which is “all we have and all we will ever have”. (129) Unfortunately, this is a mystifying and pessimistic theory of action, derived from a transhistorical conception of subjectivity, which uproots the possibility of emancipation from any historical and material reality. As Postone (1993) has argued, Habermas’ theory of communicative action (and therefore any derivative theory such as Kemmis’), has replaced Marx’s historically specific, socially constituting category of labour in capitalism with a transhistorical theory of communication.

According to Postone, Habermas understands labour only in a technical sense as ‘instrumental action’ and argues that a theory of knowledge that rests on such a category of labour is an instrumentalist theory of knowledge. (1993, 228) In my own work, I have discussed at length Marx’s theory of labour, referring to Marx’s original work as well as that of Postone’s interpretation. It seems that Habermas understands labour not as having a double concrete and abstract character, but is simply concrete labour. As Postone has shown, this has been a common misunderstanding since Marx’s time which has affected the tradition of Critical Theory from Horkheimer to Habermas. Whereas Marx and consequently Postone offer a theory of social constitution, mediation and synthesis through the double form of labour, Habermas looks elsewhere, to a theory of linguistics, to explain the interaction among humans and between humans and nature. Postone makes clear the implications of such an approach:

“If the process of social constitution by labor does indeed specify capitalism, then to project this mode of constitution transhistorically (as traditional Marxism has), or to replace it with an equally transhistorical scheme of the existence of two separate but interdependent spheres (labor and interaction, instrumental and communicative action) is to obscure the specificity of commodity-determined labor and, hence, of what characterizes capitalism. More generally, the methodological and epistemological implications of Marx’s categorial analysis of capitalism raise serious questions about any attempt to develop a social theory on the basis of a set of categories presumed to be applicable generally to the history of the human species.” (1993, 231-2)

Postone argues that Habermas has misunderstood Marx’s labour theory of value and the crucial distinction between material wealth and value as a form of social wealth derived from the corresponding dual categories of concrete and abstract labour. Marx’s labour theory of value is not simply a theory of the instrumentality of economics but a theory of emancipation which shows how the productive capacity and potential of labour in capitalism contains the possibility of its own overcoming. Although capitalism is a totalizing system of social relations, it is fundamentally based on the inherent contradiction in commodity producing labour, giving rise to the possibility of critique and emancipation.

Habermas reads Marx’s labour theory of value as one of historical evolution rather than historically specific to capitalism and sees labour as a technical activity rather than a socially constituting and mediating category. Contrary to this, Postone’s reading of Marx shows that the dual character of commodity-determined labour is a historically specific mode of social constitution which “underlies the automatic regulation of social life in capitalism.” (236) Postone argues that Habermas identifies ‘communicative action’ as existing apart from the realm of capitalism through which critique is made possible:

“as a result, the critique apprehends capitalism only as pathological and, therefore, must ground itself in a quasi-ontological manner, outside of the social and historical specificity of this form of social life.” (Postone, 1993, 153)

What this points to is that unlike Kemmis’ conclusion that “the conversation” is “all we have and all we will ever have”, Postone argues that labour, or rather the critique of labour, provides the groundwork for an emancipatory theory of knowledge, action and praxis. Participatory action research with emancipatory intent is not so much a case of being ‘critical’ as Kemmis defines it in relation to the “the quality of the argument, and the ways people participate in it” but, rather, all about pursuing a negative critique of and through that which is historically, socially and therefore epistemologically constituting and mediating in capitalism: labour.

This is not a theory of resistance or opposition as such, but rather one that recognizes the immanent possibility generated by the totalizing system of domination itself. Capital’s relentless drive to replace living human labour with dead, alienated labour (machines) points to the abolition of labour (wage work) as the basis of emancipation. The possibility of reducing the socially necessary labour time required in producing value as the form of social wealth is itself evidence that “Capital thus works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production.” (Grundrisse, 700)

Postone shows that an evolutionary theory of intersubjectivity is ultimately restorative of the standpoint of labour as socially constituting and mediating and does not provide the basis of a negative critique of labour which points towards its abolition or overcoming. Emancipatory theories such as Habermas’ theory of communicative action which are set against and somehow outside capital are ultimately theories of resistance to capital and blind to the emancipatory potential inherent in the contradictions of capital. Critical participatory action research as theorised by Kemmis may appear dynamic and dialogical on the surface but its weakness is that it is grounded in a transhistorical, one-dimensional theory of opposition that can offer little more than ameliorative social reform and therefore denies the possibility of what could be, in favour of what is. Conceived as such, it is neither prefigurative nor does it offer participants a standpoint that is immanent to the object of critique.

In my article, Writing about academic labour, I concluded by drawing on Postone’s assertion that ‘resistance’ as a form of action expresses “a deeply dualistic worldview that tends to reify both the system of domination and the idea of agency.” (Postone 2006, 108). It is “an expression of a deep and fundamental helplessness, conceptually as well as politically.” (Postone 2006, 102) Moreover, it is “an undialectical category that does not grasp its own conditions of possibility.” (2006, 108) Postone’s argument has had a profound affect on the way I view ‘scholar activism’ and reflect on my work on the Social Science Centre as a form of praxis. The key to understanding his argument here is that, as with Kemmis’ use of Habermas, action grounded upon a form of (inter-) subjectivity which views labour simply as the production of use-value, i.e. ‘concrete’, ‘natural’, ‘material’ wealth, is a “hypostatisation of the concrete”; it fetishises the concrete as a form of anti-capitalist resistance, inevitably leading to a sense of helplessness.

“The hypostatization of the concrete and the identification of capital with the manifest abstract underlie a form of “anticapitalism” that seeks to overcome the existing social order from a standpoint which actually remains intrinsic to that order”. (Postone 2003: 93)

This is the danger of a type of activism, framed as ‘action research’ or otherwise, which asserts a radical subjectivity outside the double character of labour. Although widespread, such action is based on a limited theoretical position which, as Neary and Amsler have argued, in practice

“perpetuates the approach it is attempting to critique … replicating and repeating struggles in more fragmented forms without posing a fundamental challenge.” (Neary & Amsler 2012: 119)

As an example of activism, the formation of the SSC was intended to be progressive within the limits of what was possible. It was not oppositional to the idea of the modern university only to what it had actually become. It was not borne out of helplessness but out of the crises produced by the capital labour relation, recognising that new models are needed that are more adequate to the crises we are experiencing. What is required then, for me at least, is to continue to develop my research in and on the SSC in such a way that it is constitutionally and pedagogically grounded in a particular understanding of academic labour and an academic commons, which recognises the constituting and mediating role of wage work and private property in all aspects of social life, not least higher education.

A perverse society in which human relations take on the form of relations between things

Source: Peter Hudis (2014) Yes, there is an alternative – and it can be found in Marx.

“…even in discussing the most initial phase of a new society, Marx envisions a far more radical and fundamental social transformation than has been envisaged by both his followers and critics. Communism for Marx couldn’t be further from an “idealized image of capitalism.” So why is it that so many fail to see this? It has much to do with a failure to grasp the depth of Marx’s critique of capitalism. He did not object to capitalism simply because of the existence of private property and the market (both of which existed long before capitalism). Nor did he object to capitalism simply because it was “anarchic” and lacked a centralized plan (many despotic societies were also planned). He objected to capitalism because it is a perverse society in which human relations take on the form of relations between things. And human relations take on the form of relations between things because of the dominance of value production—the subjection of living individuals to abstract forms of domination of their own making.

Marx reached for a totally new kind of society, one that would annul the prevailing concept of time in capitalist society.59 But this critical determinant becomes totally obscured if one fails to grasp the great divide between actual labor time—expressed in time as the space for human development—and socially necessary labor time, which suppresses human development. Once these two radically opposed concepts of time are conflated, Marx’s revolutionary vision of freedom and liberation readily becomes corrupted into a counter-revolutionary tyranny.”

Beneath the surface of political forms

“All political instruction finally should be centered upon the idea that Auschwitz should never happen again. This would be possible only when it devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities, to this most important of problems. To do this education must transform itself into sociology, that is, it must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.”

Adorno (1969/1998) Education after Auschwitz.

“Labour is not a commodity”. Mapping out assumptions on ‘labour’ in the co-operative movement

I’m approaching co-operative higher education in terms of ‘labour, property, and pedagogy‘ (a revised, refereed journal paper should be published early next year). With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about a recent Call for Papers for a conference on ‘Co-operatives and the world of work‘ (2015) and recalled the World Declaration on Worker Co-operatives (2005), which references the International Co-operative Alliance’s (ICA) Statement on the Co-operative Identity (1995) and the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) 2002 recommendation on the Promotion of Co-operatives (see also the ILO’s recently published guide).

The ILO recommendation begins by recalling one of its basic principles: “Labour is not a commodity”.

This is an interesting statement, completely contrary to Marx’s theory of labour power (the capacity or potential to labour) being the essential, value-creating commodity in capitalist society. So where does the statement come from? Is it theoretically grounded or an aspiration?

The ILO recommendation on the Promotion of Co-operatives refers to the Declaration of Philadelphia (1944), which reveals that “Labour is not a commodity” is not just any old principle, but the first principle of the ILO. Wikipedia tells us that the 1944 Declaration reconstituted the ILO to become the first specialised agency of the UN, so the first agency of the UN was founded on the first principle that “labour is not a commodity”. The history of the ILO and the background to the demands of the 1944 Declaration lie, unsurprisingly, in the growth of the international labour movement itself, starting with the International Working Men’s Association in 1864.

The specific origins of the phrase “labour is not a commodity” has been explored by Paul O’Higgins (1997). He traces the phrase back to the political economist, John Kells Ingram, who gave a speech at the TUC Congress in Dublin (1880). Here’s the relevant section:

“Our views of the office of the workman must also be transformed and elevated. The way in which his position is habitually contemplated by the economists, and indeed by the public, is a very narrow, and therefore a false, one. Labour is spoken of as if it were an independent entity, separable from the personality of a workman. It is treated as a commodity, like corn or cotton-the human agent, his human needs, human nature, and human feelings, being kept almost completely out of view. Now there are, no doubt, if we carry our abstractions far enough certain resemblances between the contract of employer and employed and the sale of a commodity. But by fixing exclusive, or even predominant, attention on these, we miss the deepest and truly characteristic features of the relation of master and workman-a relation with which moral conditions are inseparably associated… By viewing labour as a commodity, we at once get rid of the moral basis on which the relation of employer and employed should stand, and make the so-called law of the market the sole regulator of that relation.”

Influenced by Ingram’s address in 1880, the American Trade Union leader, Samuel Gompers, later included the assertion in the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 (‘The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce.’) and again when Gompers worked on the drafting of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles (article 427, ‘labour should not be regarded merely as a commodity or article of commerce.’), which first established the ILO. O’Higgins documents (see pp. 229-230) how Gompers worked with Edward J. Phelan on the Treaty of Versailles. Phelan worked at the newly formed ILO from 1919 and between 1941-48 was its Director General, during which time he helped draft the Declaration of Philadelphia in 1944, ensuring that the first principle of the ILO’s new foundational document was that “labour is not a commodity”.

O’Higgins concludes his article with a neat summary which indicates the continuing power and purpose of the statement:

“I think it must be recognised that the principle that ‘Labour is not a Commodity’ represents one of the most fundamental principles of international labour law. It was first formulated by the Irishman, John Kells Ingram; first given judicial content by another Irishman, Henry Bournes Higgins, and it was preserved as part of the Constitution of the reconstituted International Labour Organisation as the result of the efforts of another Irishman, Edward J. Phelan, at Philadelphia in 1944. It can, therefore, be claimed with some justification as a major Irish contribution to international labour law. Its significance is not merely historical but remains today of vital importance. Today, the International Labour Organisation is under considerable pressure to accept the doctrine that market forces are the prime means of improving the economic lot of working people, despite all the historical evidence to the contrary. As long as the ILO does not amend the Declaration of Philadelphia, it is constitutionally committed to an opposite and contradictory doctrine. The principle that ‘Labour is not a Commodity’ is readily available for progressive use by both English courts and by the European Court of Justice.”

So, it seems clear that the principle of “labour is not a commodity” is based on Ingram’s moral assertion which was itself a reaction to the prevailing theories of political economy that placed an emphasis on the role of the market in determining the value of labour.  This was during a period of increasing growth and influence of the international labour movement and the formal recognition of trade unions as labour’s legal representation and counterpart to the incorporation of capital.  It was an attempt to humanise an understanding of labour which had been abstracted in theory and in law. It seems that Ingram wasn’t offering an alternative theory of labour, but appealing to a moral vision of the capital-relation that was not solely regulated by the ‘market’ (i.e. the production of value).

It is, as Postone would say, an assertion from the standpoint of labour, rather than a critical theory of labour.

What I find interesting though, is that despite these origins which focus on the conditions of labour rather than fundamentally question the form labour takes in capitalism, worker co-operatives do offer a self-conscious form of association that tackles both wage work and private property head on. Worker co-ops (this is not an argument for consumer co-operatives) in the UK can do this through the creation of a social or collective form of property that is neither public nor privately owned, and by drawing from the (variable) surplus they make rather than being paid a fixed wage. Although similar to wage labour or collective self-employment, worker co-ops are progressive in that their constitution attempts to dissolve the capital-labour relation within the confines of the collectively owned and democratically managed firm itself, while remaining subject to the capital-labour relation in the market.

From a Marxist perspective, worker co-ops do not overcome the dual form that capitalist labour takes (concrete and abstract labour), because they operate within the social world of capital in which individual, divided labour is reduced to a qualitatively homogenous social form. But in dialectical terms, they do represent a form and means of association between people (i.e. the working class) that is against the capital-labour relation. Not surprisingly, worker co-ops struggle to sustain themselves as safe spaces from the subsumption of capital, the wage-relation and private property, but as Egan has argued, “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.” (82) That is, the historical specificity of capitalism might constrain worker co-ops but does not determine them. (75) The dialectic is not simply a methodological position but the movement of history itself, “being in a fluid state, in motion”. (Capital, Vol. 1, 103) Worker co-ops are a form of the negation of capital and “its inevitable destruction”. (ibid)

Worker co-operatives that operate without wage labour and private property offer an organisational form which establishes in practice that “labour is not a commodity” in a way that is more grounded than the moral basis of Ingram’s views. Of course, they do not entirely transcend capitalism but, as Marx recognised, have arisen dialectically out of the contradictions of capitalism, demonstrating that “hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form”. (Marx, 1864)

Although the World Declaration on Worker Co-operatives refers to the ILO’s recommendation which has as its first principle that “labour is not a commodity”, the Declaration asserts something much more radical: a statement on a form of labour that seeks to undermine the capital-labour relation rather than establish an improved moral understanding between capitalist and worker.