Digital labour, academic labour and Karl Marx

Below are some initial notes on Christian Fuchs’ book, Digital Labour and Karl Marx (2014). I think it was published about six weeks ago and as far as I can see, has yet to receive any substantive reviews. Don’t take this as a review either, it’s just a first pass at working through the book and trying to think about what it can bring to discussions around academic labour. On the whole, I’m very impressed with it. It’s 400 pages, comprehensively structured with a glossary at the back, and so a very useful reference and teaching resource. It combines a good discussion of Marx’s critique of political economy with a literature review and several illustrative case studies. I’ll be buying it as soon as it’s out in paperback (the publisher has told me May 2014, at the latest).

Defining ‘digital labour’: Form and content, appearance and essence, abstract and concrete

Fuchs’ book opens with:

“How is labour changing in the age of computers, the Internet, and “social media” such as Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter? In Digital Labour and Karl Marx, Christian Fuchs attempts to answer that question, crafting a systematic critical theorisation of labour as performed in the capitalist ICT industry. Relying on a range of global case studies – from unpaid social media prosumers or Chinese hardware assemblers at Foxconn to miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo – Fuchs sheds light on the labour costs of digital media, examining the way ICT corporations exploit human labour and the impact of this exploitation on the lives, bodies, and minds of workers.”

From this we are made aware that this is not a book about ‘immaterial labour’ or ‘cognitive capitalism’, although it discusses these theories, but rather it is primarily a critique of the forms of labour that contribute to the production of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).

The book is divided into three main sections: Theory, case studies and conclusions.

The first section begins with an introduction to what ‘digital labour’ refers to and why it should be studied. Fuchs defines digital labour through reference to examples: mining for minerals used in mobile phones; Foxconn factory workers; Google software engineers; Amazon’s Mechanical Turk; Amazon’s warehouse workers; Work.Shop.Play, a website that rewards people for completing surveys for market research; and crowdsourcing the translation of Facebook’s website into other languages. From this, Fuchs defines ‘digital labour’ in the following way:

“These examples outline various forms of labour associated with the ICT industry. They differ in amount in regard to the levels of payment; health risks; physical, ideological and social violence; stress; free time; overtime; and the forms of coercion and control the workers are experiencing, but all have in common that human labour-power is exploited in a way that monetarily benefits ICT corporations and has negative impacts on the lives, bodies or minds of workers. The forms of labour described in this book are all types of digital labour because they are part of a collective work force that is required for the existence, usage and application of digital media. What defines them is not a common type of occupation, but rather the industry they contribute to and in which capital exploits them.” (p. 4)

In the book’s glossary (‘Digital Labour Keywords’), the entry for digital labour is:

Digital labour Digital labour is alienated digital work: it is alienated from itself, from the instruments and objects of labour and from the products of labour. Alienation is alienation of the subject from itself (labour-power is put to use for and is controlled by capital), alienation from the object (the objects of labour and the instruments of labour) and the subject-object (the products of labour). Digital work and digital labour are broad categories that involve all activities in the production of digital media technologies and contents.

This means that in the capitalist media industry, different forms of alienation and exploitation can be encountered. Examples are slave workers in mineral extraction, Taylorist hardware assemblers, software engineers, professional online content creators (e.g. online journalists), call centre agents and social media prosumers. In digital labour that is performed on corporate social media, users are objectively alienated because (a) in relation to subjectivity, they are coerced by isolation and social disadvantage if they leave monopoly capital platforms (such as Facebook); (b) in relation to the objects of labour, their human experiences come under the control of capital; (c) in relation to the instruments of labour, the platforms are not owned by users but by private companies that also commodify user data; and (d) in relation to the product of labour, monetary profit is individually controlled by the platform’s owners. These four forms of alienation constitute together the exploitation of digital labour by capital. Alienation of digital labour concerns labour-power, the object and instruments of labour and the created products.” See also: digital work
Digital work Digital work is a specific form of work that makes use of the body, mind or machines or a combination of all or some of these elements as an instrument of work in order to organize nature, resources extracted from nature, or culture and human experiences, in such a way that digital media are produced and used. The products of digital work are depending on the type of work: minerals, components, digital media tools or digitally mediated symbolic representations, social relations, artefacts, social systems and communities. Digital work includes all activities that create use-values that are objectified in digital media technologies, contents and products generated by applying digital media.

See also: digital labour” (p. 352)

I’ve quoted these in full because it’s important to know what we’re analysing and because I want to determine whether and how ‘academic labour’ differs from ‘digital labour’. After all, I am engaged in implementing a digital education strategy at my university, I have run a number of ICT related projects over the years and I think the label ‘digital scholar’ applies to academics like me. Am I a digital worker? Is my academic labour also digital labour?

From Fuchs’ definitions, we can say that digital labour is indeed a “broad category”. I think we can distil it as:

Alienated and exploited digital work which is defined by its association with the ICT industry; it creates value for that industry. It incorporates all physiological aspects of the human body, its relationship to nature and machines. It is objectified in digital goods as well as services that are reliant on digital goods.

Another way to define digital labour is to question what it is not. Can we think of a type of labouring activity that can not be included under this broad category? We have seen above that ‘digital work’ is not defined by its direct relationship to digital outputs. For example, in a month of work, the miner of minerals for a mobile phone may never encounter an ICT technology. They may live without access to electricity, walk to work, dig holes and that is the extent of their labouring routine. As Fuchs notes in the introduction to his case study on the slavery of mineral mining (what he calls ‘digital slavery’), “most of the slaves who extract these minerals have never owned a computer or laptop.” (p.155) So in thinking about non-digital labour, we need to think of a type of labouring activity where the ICT industry does not profit from it in any way and it does not produce ICT goods or any services that rely on ICT.

The first thing that comes to my mind is food production. Is this digital labour? The food commodity is not a digital object, yet according to Fuchs’ definition, I think large-scale, industrial food production and manufacturing (e.g. ‘e-agriculture‘) could count as digital labour. It is highly mechanised and relies on the global trade of food commodities. The ICT industry definitely benefits from the production processes of food, even apart from it keeping their workers alive.

What about nursing? The ICT industry definitely benefits from the medical and care professions. The act of care in a hospital or care home can be seen as contributing to the profits of the ICT industry. It may at first seem like a long stretch between patient care and the revenues of Dell, for example, but the labour of a nurse includes the use of ICT and management of that labour requires the use of ICT. Cisco, for example, thinks that ‘ICT [is] at the heart of NHS reform‘. [pdf] It is an “integral and underpinning part of NHS business”.

The issue that Fuchs’ definition of digital labour points to is that it could include most types of labour. Even slavery is referred to as ‘digital slavery’. However, Fuchs suggests otherwise in his discussion of an imaginary company where workers’ time is divided 50/50 between the production of laptops and the production of cars. Fuchs says that 50% of the time the individual undertakes digital work and 50% is not digital work, yet for 100% of their time they are an “industrial worker.” I understand what Fuchs is saying here and the need to distinguish between labour that is directly involved in the production of ICT and that which is not, but how close does the worker have to be to the ICT commodity? The miner working under slave-like conditions may never see the phones that contain the minerals they labour and die for, but I walk around with the results of their labour in my pocket all day. My consumption is their production. In the case of cars, which seems like a weak example given how all new cars are ‘managed’ by computers, the designer, the fabricator, the factory floor manager, the person who maintains the production line robots, and even the hands-on worker who assembles and finishes the car, all of these roles today draw on the use of ICT and through their production of vehicles, they also produce value for the ICT industry.  Consumption and production are never far apart. Without consumption, there would be no production.  Marx recognised this in his manuscripts:

“Production, then, is also immediately consumption, consumption is also immediately production. Each is immediately its opposite. But at the same time a mediating movement takes place between the two. Production mediates consumption; it creates the latter’s material; without it, consumption would lack an object. But consumption also mediates production, in that it alone creates for the products the subject for whom they are products. The product only obtains its ‘last finish’ in consumption.”

Fuchs’ definition suggests to me that almost all labour in the world today that engages in the capitalist mode of production could be called ‘digital labour’. From ‘digital slaves’ to ‘digital scholars‘, the social form of labour remains the same, even though the way in which it appears in the particular, concrete case studies, may look quite different.

For example, the essential content of labour of both mineral miners and scholars shares the following common attributes and only the degree to which these attributes characterise their work is different.

  • they both sell their labour power in exchange for a wage, without which they could not survive.
  • they are both alienated (separated) from the product of their labour which becomes the private property of their employer. Private property is an outcome of alienated labour. Value can therefore only be derived from the labour of an individual which is alienated.
  • they are both exploited because their employers pay them less than the value they create
  • the labour of the slave and scholar has both a concrete and abstract form: concrete in the physiological sense that produces something of use (a use value), and abstract as a result of the alienation of their work being a source of undifferentiated value which is measured quantitatively by ‘socially necessary labour time’ at the moment of exchange (exchange value)
  • the value they create decreases as their productivity increases due to competition between capitalists
  • the labour of both the slave and the scholar does not exist apart from the process of capitalist valorisation (M-C-M’)

A Marxist analysis of labour shows that the enormous diversity of labour as it appears within capitalism has a particular historical content. The various activities of labour highlight how capitalism relies on the socialisation and division of labour: The scholar undertakes research which identifies certain minerals useful for networked communication, and the miner undertakes to extract those minerals. This is capitalism’s social, co-operative division of labour.  It is one thing to critique labour at the level of appearances, skills, conditions, etc., and another to discuss it through general abstractions which help us understand why we find ourselves labouring in this co-operative and social, yet alienated and exploited way. The danger is that we complicate our analysis unnecessarily by introducing terms such as ‘digital labour’, ‘academic labour’, ‘immaterial labour’, etc. and take our eye off the real target of critique which is labour defined by the capitalist mode of production.

When applying a Marxist critique of society, we don’t start with the way things appear to us in a particular concrete sense, but rather from a dialectical method of abstraction that attempts to identify the real content of things. In Capital, having discussed the ‘buying and selling of labour power’, Marx insists that to really understand what is at work, we must inquire into the ‘hidden abode’ of the capitalist mode of production.

“Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.”

The “noisy sphere” in which (digital) labour appears to us on the “surface”, while appearing to be the obvious place to begin an analysis, should in fact be the end point. The working conditions are terrible – we can see that, but why are they terrible? Not simply because the capitalist is greedy and violent, but because he is compelled by a totalising, social mode of production that, like the labourer, his life is determined by. To discover this, Marx tells us that we must “rise from the abstract to the concrete” in our analysis, scientifically applying a categorial analysis to the everyday appearance of things so as to determine the categories of capitalist social relations at work e.g. alienation, exploitation, use/exchange value, concrete/abstract labour, etc.

These abstractions reveal the social form of things which appear in the particular concrete activity but which have a ‘hidden’, historical, socially constructed content.

As a result, what we find is that the distinction of digital or non-digital labour is less useful than understanding the degree to which different appearances of concrete labouring activity express the content of capitalist labour as listed above. Clearly on one level, the particular work of the slave and scholar are very far apart. The conditions of employment, the degree of alienation, the magnitude of exploitation and the degree to which the value of each individual can be measured are all very different. Fuchs’ definition recognises this by encompassing both the slave miner and the Google engineer yet he does not go as far as negating the idea of ‘digital labour’ as ‘digital work’ which benefits the ICT industry.

“These examples outline various forms of labour associated with the ICT industry. They differ in amount in regard to the levels of payment; health risks; physical, ideological and social violence; stress; free time; overtime; and the forms of coercion and control the workers are experiencing, but all have in common that human labour-power is exploited in a way that monetarily benefits ICT corporations and has negative impacts on the lives, bodies or minds of workers.” (p.6)

Forces and relations of production

The question then, is whether ‘digital labour’ is a useful, critical category that provides a deeper insight into contemporary capitalist society. Does the advent of ‘digital labour’ point to a different ‘logic’ of the capitalist mode of production? Is Marx’s critique still relevant? Later in his book (ch.5), Fuchs discusses this in relation to the distinction made between capitalist society and an information society. He draws on Adorno who gave a keynote talk on the topic of ‘Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?’ Basically, Adorno was asking “whether it is true that Marx is out of date.” Adorno proposes that contemporary society is industrial according to the state of its forces of production while being capitalist in its relations of production.

“In terms of critical, dialectical theory, I would like to propose as an initial, necessarily abstract answer that contemporary society undoubtedly is an industrial society according to the state of its forces of production. Industrial labor has everywhere become the model of society as such, regardless of the frontiers separating differing political systems. It has developed into a totality because methods modeled on those of industry are necessarily extended by the laws of economics to other realms of material production, administration, the sphere of distribution, and those that call themselves culture. In contrast, however, society is capitalist in its relations of production. People are still what they were in Marx’s analysis in the middle of the nineteenth century. […] Production takes place today, as then, for the sake of profit” (Adorno, 1968)

Fuchs re-phrases Adorno’s dialectic by proposing that,

“In terms of critical, dialectical theory, I would like to propose as an initial, necessarily abstract answer that contemporary society is an information society according to the state of its forces of production. In contrast, however, contemporary society is capitalist in its relations of production. People are still what they were in Marx’s analysis in the middle of the nineteenth century. Production takes place today, as then, for the sake of profit, and for achieving this end it to a certain extent makes use of knowledge and information technology in production. Productive forces and relations of production are interlocking phenomena: they contain each other.” (p.150)

Fuchs is critical of the tendency of some critics who want to separate the ‘information society’ from capitalist society, to argue that either everything has changed or that nothing has fundamentally changed since Marx undertook his critique of political economy. Fuchs rightly argues that a dialectical analysis is necessary, one which recognises that

“there are certain changes taking place that are intended to support the deepening of the class structure but also contain what Marx termed Keimformen (germ forms of an alternative society). That the development of the informational productive forces is itself contradictory and comes in conflict with the capitalist relations of production can be observed by phenomena such as file sharing on the Internet, the discussions about intellectual property rights, the emergence of pirate parties in the political landscape of advanced capitalist countries, or the popularity of free software” (p. 151)

I agree. However, following my distinction earlier about using Marx’s critical categories to understand the social form of capitalist labour, I’d like to suggest a different way of approaching an analysis of ‘digital labour’ that reconciles all of the issues I have outlined above: the distinction between production and consumption; between content and form of labour; and between the forces and relations of production.

In some earlier notes I made on the work of Simon Clarke and Moishe Postone, I highlighted the distinction between analysis at the level of content and analysis at the level of form.

“For Clarke, “questions of form are more fundamental than questions of content” and for Postone, it is vital to understand “the distinction between what modern capitalism is and the way it appears.” Both writers deem a retreat into the concrete as misguided as it misunderstands capital and its contradictions. Consequently, opponents of capital frequently experience a demoralised sense of political impotency – a sense of helplessness.”

My concern with Fuchs’ definition of ‘digital labour’ and in the general development of the ‘digital labour’ line of critique over the last few years is that it leads to a position of helplessness by focusing on the appearance of labour to the neglect of its social form. In his book, Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology (1991), Simon Clarke includes a section on ‘The contradictory social form of capitalist production’ (p.228). In this section of his book, he responds to the

“marginalist attempt to establish the rationality of capitalist exchange and of capitalist production. We now have to put production and exchange together, to locate the source of the fundamental irrationality of exchange, which is to be found in the contradictory social form of capitalist reproduction.” (p.229)

Clarke goes on to discuss how the capitalist mode of production is a social process requiring both producers and consumers. The historical separation of the direct producer from the means of production was “not sufficient to secure the reproduction of the social relations of capitalist production.” (p.229) Workers who sell their labour power receive a wage with which they are no longer propertyless and on which they subsist. The capitalist has produced commodities through the purchase of labour power, but they are worthless until they are exchanged for money in the hands of consumers.

“The social reproduction of the capitalist mode of production now depends on the particular use made of the commodities in the hands of the worker and the capitalist: the worker must use the money in her possession to reconstitute herself, physically and socially, as a wage labourer. The capitalist must use the means of production and labour-power in his possession to reconstitute himself as a capitalist.” (p.229)

Thus, the consumer, who is only a consumer because they are a producer of labour power which they sell for a wage, is dependent on the production of commodities by capitalists who are dependent on the consumption of commodities by workers. In a capitalist society, production and consumption are, as noted above, “immediately opposite”. Workers are required to sell enough of their labour power, measured in time, so as to subsist (‘necessary labour’) and the employer seeks to ‘extend’ the time of labouring, either literally or by improving productivity such that the worker is more productive in a given period of time (this is deemed ‘surplus labour’). It is the surplus labour, above and beyond what the worker is paid for, which invests the commodity with the potential to realise profit upon exchange.

The important point that Clarke makes in this section is that despite workers being paid a wage upon which they should be able to subsist, the capitalist mode of production relies on the imposition of a socially constructed scarcity.

“The physical reproduction of the worker is not a sufficient condition for the social reproduction of the worker as a wage-labourer. If wages rise significantly above the socially determined subsistence level there will be no compulsion on the worker to return to work for the next period. The form of the wage-relation therefore not only determines the needs of the worker as a consumer, it also determines that the relation between those needs and the worker’s resources will be a relation of scarcity – not the natural scarcity depicted by the economists, but the socially constructed scarcity imposed by the dynamics of capitalism. It is this relation of scarcity that forces the vast majority of workers to assume a ‘rational’ orientation to work and to consumption, working to maximise their incomes, and carefully allocating their scarce resources to ensure that they can meet their subsistence needs, rather than assuming the ‘hedonistic’ orientation of the bourgeoisie, for whom work can be a means of self-realisation and consumption a source of pleasure. The capitalist system of production, far from representing the most rational means of resolving the problem of scarcity, depends on the reproduction of scarcity, whether by the restriction of wages or the inflation of needs.” (p. 230)

Both the worker and the capitalist are subject to this process of socially constructed scarcity. It is not simply a matter of capitalists exploiting individuals in their roles of worker and consumer. The reproduction of capital, necessary to both the capitalist and the worker in this social relation, entails the subordination of labour due to competition.

“Competition is the form in which capital presents itself as a barrier to its own reproduction.” (p. 231)

That is, competition results in the necessary improvement of productivity so that the price of commodities can be set lower and in line with competitors’ prices, thus pushing down the value produced per commodity and thus requiring the production and sale of more commodities so as to realise the intended and required overall value for the capitalist. Greater productivity results in the value of labour decreasing and only the sale of greater quantities of commodities can make up for that fall in value. This results in a tendency to overproduce commodities and in response stimulates the expansion of needs so as to create a condition of scarcity from a condition of abundance. Eventually, this results in a crisis of overproduction where consumption, fuelled by the wage-relation and extended by forms of credit, cannot be maintained in line with production. At the point of crisis, exchange of certain commodities collapses and therefore so does the production of value.

Clarke’s book, and this section in particular, is especially useful in understanding how both consumers and producers are stimulated by competition between capitalists, who themselves are subject to the determinate and irrational ‘logic’ of capital. It helps us understand how the inflation of needs and socially constructed scarcity compel individuals into membership of the social form of capitalist production, to valorise value at the point where production and consumption become immediate and value is realised: exchange. Consumption is subject to the wage-relation and the requirements of production, which is constantly being improved leading to the overproduction of commodities, which in turn imposes competition within the market. This competition compels capitalists to stimulate a greater variety of ‘needs’, further alienating labour from its product.

“Such alienation persists so long as the human activity of workers as producers is subordinated to a need imposed on the workers to reduce their labour-time to a minimum, instead of being subordinated to the human needs and abilities of the workers themselves.” (p. 231)

Thus, the ‘forces of production’ have not been reconstituted from an industrial to information society. Information enables greater productivity in industry and platforms such as Facebook, whose commercial value is largely dependent on advertising revenue, are opportunities to stimulate social need and impose scarcity. Adorno’s distinction between ‘industrial’ and ‘capitalist’ was a false one, as is the distinction between ‘information’ and ‘capitalism’. As Clarke shows, capital is a social relation. Its social form is to be discovered in its form of production, not in the different historic methods of improving productivity nor in the various expressions of its commodity form. Capital appears in the form of things which control the lives of people, but Marx showed that it is a historic form of social relations based on the compulsion to produce value, the current, historic form of social wealth. Such compulsion exploits the need for individuals to sustain their lives as well as their productive capacity to meet those needs through the imposition of private property and wage-labour. The development of technology (steam, analogue, digital, etc.) in itself does not indicate new historical productive forces. The productive force is the capital relation, expressed through wage-labour and private property, the organising principle of life under capitalism.

From this standpoint, ‘digital labour’ as defined earlier is not a distinctive form of labour but carries all of the attributes of labour required of the social form of capitalist production. The excellent case studies that Fuchs usefully provides (miners, Foxconn workers, Indian software developers, Google employees, call centre workers, and social media users) support the definition of ‘digital labour’ as labour which profits the ICT industry, but arguably presents the digital labourer as the personification of a new type and use of labour power. Yet, Fuchs’ conclusions are quite the opposite. His book is rich with an analysis of Marx’s critical categories and the case studies are discussed in terms laid out in his more theoretical first section. Fuchs makes clear that

“The “information economy” is not new, postmodern or radically discontinuous. It is rather a highly complex formation in which various contemporary and historical forms of labour, exploitation, different forms of organization of the productive forces, and different modes of production are articulated with each other and form a dialectic of exploitation.” (p.296)

What Fuchs’ book does is establish ‘digital labour’ as a distinct form of labour and then, by the end, takes that assumption apart by showing how digital labour is simply capitalist labour and that Marx’s 150 year-old critique remains highly relevant and useful today. His book is a response to an emerging understanding of ‘digital labour’ which confined it to mainly unpaid labour through social media and he argues for an extension of the definition to incorporate a broader range of labour practices which benefit the ICT industry.

 “Digital labour has thus far mainly been used as a term characterizing unpaid labour conducted by social media users (see the contributions in Scholz 2013). We can conclude from the discussion in this book that social media prosumption is just one form of digital labour which is networked with and connected to other forms of digital labour that together constitute a global ecology of exploitation enabling the existence of digital media. It is time to broaden the meaning of the term “digital labour” to include all forms of paid and unpaid labour that are needed for existence, production, diffusion and use of digital media. Digital labour is relational in a twofold sense: it is a relation between labour and capital and relational at the level of the IDDL that is shaped by articulated modes of production, forms of the organization of productive forces and variations of the dominant capitalist mode of production.” (p.296)

In my view, this still falls short of the necessary task of understanding these types of labour as simply ‘capitalist labour’ and in doing so, remains a distraction from the purpose and method of critical political economy which is to start from the abstract and rise to the concrete. ‘Digital labour’ theory seems to implicitly start from the concrete appearance of new and novel forms of ‘digital work’; Marx insists that we begin with abstractions; Postone warns us that to focus on the concrete appearance of things leads to a sense of helplessness; and Clarke reminds us that the object of critique is capital, a social form of human relations determined by the self-valorisation of value. The point then, is to discover a new form of social wealth other than value and in doing so, necessarily abolish the substance of value: labour, and in doing so, overcome capitalism. As Fuchs says:

“The law of value has not lost its force. It is in full effect everywhere in the world where exploitation takes place. It has been extended to underpaid and unpaid forms of labour, corporate media prosumption being just one of them. As a result of technical increases in productivity, the value of commodities tends to historically decrease. At the same time, value is the only source of capital, commodities and profit in capitalism. The contradictions of value have resulted in a disjuncture of values, profits and prices that contributes to actual or potential crises, which shows that crises are inherent to capitalism. This it turn makes it feasible to replace capitalism with a commons-based system of existence, in which not value but creativity, social relations, free time and play are the source of value*. Such a society is called communism and is the negation of the negativity of capitalism.” (p.279)

* Fuchs’ specific use of the term ‘value’ at this point is confusing. I prefer ‘social wealth’ as a way of distinguishing ‘value’ the substance of which is abstract labour, from a qualitatively different post-capitalist form of social relations.

Value and the transparency of direct labour

In my notes on Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, I tried to get to grips with what Marx referred to as indirect and direct labour. Although I didn’t articulate it very well, I did make the point that the difference between indirect (capitalist) labour and direct (post-capitalist) labour was that direct labour was not mediated by exchange value (‘value’). Since writing those notes, I’ve started to read Peter Hudis’ (2012) book, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism 1 which has so far offered two very useful insights.

A definition of value

First, he highlights a definition of value by Marx:

“value is a commodity’s quantitatively determined exchangeability.”

From this brief definition, we are reminded that value is:

(a) found in the commodity, which is a form of use value and exchange value, which are expressions of concrete and undifferentiated abstract labour; abstract labour being the source or social substance of the commodity’s value.

(b) not measured by the commodity’s qualitative nature, but rather as a quantity of something (see below).  e.g. the qualitative features of ‘gold’ has no intrinsic value. Only a given quantity of gold has value. The value of gold is in its scarcity. i.e. the quantity of gold produced is low compared to the quantity of labour required to discover and extract it.

(c) validated by the commodity’s exchangeability with a universal equivalent: a quantity of money.

Marx determined that the quantitative measure of value is ‘socially necessary labour time’.

“Some people might think that if the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labour spent on it, the more idle and unskilful the labourer, the more valuable would his commodity be, because more time would be required in its production. The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour power. The total labour power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary. The labour time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time. The introduction of power-looms into England probably reduced by one-half the labour required to weave a given quantity of yarn into cloth. The hand-loom weavers, as a matter of fact, continued to require the same time as before; but for all that, the product of one hour of their labour represented after the change only half an hour’s social labour, and consequently fell to one-half its former value.

We see then that that which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour time socially necessary for its production.”

Here, I am reminded of Bonefeld, quoting Marx:

When talking about value, we are talking about the expenditure of ‘definite masses of crystallised labour time’ (1983: 184). That is to say, ‘labour time is the living state of existence of labour … it is the living quantitative aspect of labour as well as its inherent measure’ (Marx, 1987a: 272).

When money is exchanged for a commodity, it is a validation of the socially necessary labour time given to the production of the commodity. The minimum amount of socially necessary labour time that is required to produce a commodity determines the magnitude of the commodity’s value. This is a socially dynamic calculation, based on the level of technological input (‘dead labour’), the productivity of labour and efficiencies gained through the division and control of labour, the level of competition from other commodity producers, and so on.

What is important to recognise here, is that the more productive labour becomes, the less value a single commodity contains. Marx explains in this way:

“If we presuppose that the labour time contained in the commodities is, under the given conditions, necessary labour time, socially necessary labour time— and this is always the presupposition we start from once the value of a commodity is reduced to the labour time contained in it — what takes place is rather the following: The value of the product of labour is in an inverse ratio to the productivity of labour. This is in fact an identical proposition. It means nothing more than this: If labour becomes more productive, it can represent a greater quantity of the same use values in the same period, it can embody itself in a greater amount of use values of the same kind. Accordingly, an aliquot part of these use values, e.g. a yard of linen, contains less labour time than previously, has therefore less exchange value and indeed the exchange value of the yard of linen has fallen in the same proportion as the productivity of the labour of weaving has grown. Inversely, if more labour time than previously were required to produce a yard of linen (let us say, because more labour time was required to produce a pound of flax), the yard of linen would now contain more labour time, hence would have a higher exchange value. Its exchange value would have increased in the same proportion as the labour required to produce it had become less productive. We see then that that which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour time socially necessary for its production.”

As such, greater value can only be realised through the production of greater quantities of the commodity, eventually resulting in over-production relative to social consumption, leading to economic crisis.

What is ‘direct labour’?

The second point by Hudis I have found useful is his remark on indirect and direct labour.

We have determined that capitalism is a mode of production which turns on the production of value. This is variously described as the ‘valorisation of value’, or ‘self-expanding value’ and elsewhere I have summarised it as follows:

“In his critique of political economy, Marx developed the “general formula of capital”, M-C-M’. This refers to the way money (M) is advanced to purchase a commodity (C) in order to produce new commodities that are sold for a profit, creating more money. With the commodities purchased, ‘the capitalist’ buys the means of production (MP) and labour-power (L), transforming money capital into productive capital (P).  As a generalised method of creating wealth, this process is historically unique to capitalism. The circuit of capitalist valorisation can be illustrated as:”

Marx's "general formula of capital"

As others have observed, it follows that a post-capitalist society is one defined by the abolition of value and in order to achieve this, the capitalist form of (concrete and abstract) labour must be overcome. Freedom then, is freedom from abstract labour measured by socially necessary labour time (i.e. freedom from value).

When discussing the transition from capitalism to communism, Marx refers to indirect and direct labour. Hudis (2012), quoting Marx, notes that in the transition to post-capitalism “social relations become ‘transparent in their simplicity’ once the labourers put an end to alienated labour and the dictatorship of abstract time.”

“Marx is not suggesting that all facets of life become transparent in the lower phase of socialism or communism; indeed, he never suggests this about conditions in a higher phase either. He is addressing something much more specific: namely, the transparent nature of the exchange between labor time and products of labor. This relation can never be transparent so long as there is value production; it becomes transparent only once indirectly social labour is replaced by directly social labour.” (209-10)

Interestingly, in Hudis’ earlier PhD thesis, this last sentence is expressed differently:

“it becomes transparent only once value production is annulled by freely associated labor.”

This also reiterates for us that the replacement of indirect labour with direct labour leads to the abolition of value. Direct, freely associated labour is not value-creating labour.

Direct labour then, is a transparent process instead of the opaque process of indirect, value-creating, alienated capitalist labour (Marx referred to it as the “hidden abode of production”). I wonder whether this transparency can be conceived in terms of ‘openness’, which I have written about in the context of ‘open education’. If we try to conceive the academic labour process of open education as transparent, direct and freely associated, what are its characteristics? Hudis can help us again, here:

“Marx does not, of course, limit his horizon to the initial phase of socialism or communism. He discusses it as part of understanding what is needed in order to bring to realization the more expansive social relations of a higher phase. Marx conceives of this phase as the passing beyond of natural necessity—not in the sense that labor as such would come to an end, but rather that society would no longer be governed by the necessity for material production and reproduction. This higher phase, however, can only come into being as a result of a whole series of complex and involved historical developments, which include the abolition of the “the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and thereby also the antithesis between mental and physical labor.” It is impossible to achieve this, he reminds us, in the absence of highly developed productive forces. Marx never conceived it as possible for a society to pass to ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ while remaining imprisoned in conditions of social and technological backwardness. And yet it is not the productive forces that create the new society: it is, instead, live men and women.” (210)

He quotes Raya Dunayevskaya:

“For it is not the means of production that create the new type of man, but the new man that will create the means of production, and the new mode of activity will create the new type of human being, socialist man.” (210)

This seems to suggest that as capitalism comes to a gradual end, labour will be directed more towards immaterial production (i.e. production that it not necessary for human self-reproduction). Labour will freely associate with labour, not divided into hierarchies of production, nor characterised by the false separation of manual and intellectual labour. Such labour relies on a condition of abundance, which is visible to us all now, though not available to all. The material conditions for this abundance have, as Dunayevskaya notes, already been met through the productive capacity of labour and are the basis upon which a new mode of activity 2 will produce a new type of human being. Post-capitalist woman and man are not determined by the ‘logic’ of capitalist valorisation, and thus are free to to develop new forms of ‘democracy’, new conceptions of ‘equality’ and ‘individuality’.

In the same way, the production of knowledge (i.e. ‘education’) will be through free association, enabled by the technological capacity developed during the capitalist mode of production, now expressed by a form of abundance which Marx referred to as the ‘general intellect’.

“Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.” (Marx, Grundrisse)

Drawing on Dyer-Witheford (1999), I have written about the ‘general intellect’ in the context of ‘Student as Producer’ with my colleague, Mike Neary. In that book chapter, we conclude with a section that discusses the general intellect and ‘mass intellectuality’:

“This is the social body of knowledge, modes of communication and co-operation and even ethical preoccupations which both supports and transgresses the operation of a high-tech economy. It is not knowledge created by and contained within the university, but is the ‘general social knowledge’ embodied by and increasingly available to all of us.”

We go on to identify the free culture movement as the development of an alternative organising principle; one not fully realised but with emancipatory potential. In this context, I have also critiqued the open education movement and its focus on the freedom of things rather than the freedom of people, akin to what Marx analysed as ‘commodity fetishism‘, where the social relations between people are inverted and take on the form of value. I argued that this is occurring in universities to such an extent that whole institutions become the personification of value and the purpose of academic labour is to “serve the social character of the institution, which is constantly being monitored and evaluated through a system of league tables” and other performance indicators. As Neocleus observes:

“the process of personification of capital … is the flip side of a process in which human persons come to be treated as commodities – the worker, as human subject, sells labour as an object. As relations of production are reified so things are personified – human subjects become objects and objects become subjects – an irrational, ‘bewitched, distorted and upside- down world’ in which ‘Monsieur le Capital’ takes the form of a social character – a dramatis personae on the economic stage, no less.” (Neocleous 2003: 159)

This remains the challenge for open education, which can only truly exist under conditions where labour can freely associate directly with labour and not through the mediation of commodities (i.e. ‘Open Educational Resources’) produced under the contract of performative academic wage labour and circulated on a network of privately held networks. The social relations of open education would be “transparent in their simplicity”, rather than occurring as it does now, in the hidden abode of capitalist production.

Finally, the full quote from Marx which I have referred to above is most revealing in the context of open education in that Marx regards transparency (openness?) to be necessary in both the social relations of production and distribution.

“Let us finally imagine, for a change, an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self­ awareness as one single social labour force…

The social relations of the individual producers, both toward their labour and the products of their labour, are here transparent in their simplicity, in production as well as in distribution.” (Marx, Capital, Vol.1, p.171-2)

Arguably, open education so far has focused almost exclusively on the ‘free culture’ of exchange (distribution) and has yet to address the role of academic labour (production). One way to critically examine it would be through the critical pedagogy of ‘Student as Producer‘, based on the productive capacity of human beings and aimed at developing direct social relations between teachers and students (‘scholars’), whose needs and capacities are reflected in the acknowledgement that they have much to learn from each other.

Marx on individualism, equality and democracy

As I’ve mentioned before, I am one of several scholars participating in the Social Science Centre’s course on ‘Co-operation and education‘. This week (week five), we were discussing co-operative values and principles, with a particular focus on ‘autonomy’ (4th principle) and ‘democracy’ (2nd principle). The reading for this week was Ian MacPherson’s ‘Speech Introducing the Co‐operative Identity Statement to the 1995 Manchester Congress of the ICA’, and the article on democracy from the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.

In addition to this, I also went looking for something that discussed Marx’s views on democracy, partly because he usually acts as a counter to the dominant liberal history of ideas, and also because I have been thinking about the role of democracy, equality and the individual in the context of teaching and learning in a post-capitalist form of higher education. The article I ended up reading was Springborg (1984) Karl Marx on Democracy, Participation, Voting, and Equality, Political Theory, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Nov., 1984), pp. 537-556. Below are my rough thoughts and notes on Springborg’s article…

Marx’s views on democracy share things in common with classical political philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Hegel. He viewed participatory democracy negatively as a form of radical individualism as it emphasises first and foremost the agency of the individual rather than of the community as a whole through representatives. Springborg identifies three main arguments from Marx in defence of the idea of democracy:

1. Democracy is “the essence” of the political. It is more than its legal, juridical form. In his 1844 Manuscripts and 1843 Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, communism and democracy are described separately in the same terms.

Springborg paraphrasing Marx on communism:

“the resolution of the antithesis between essence and existence, form and content, individual and species; it is the riddle of history solved and knows itself to be that solution.”


“Democracy is the resolved mystery of all constitutions. Here the constitution not only in itself, according to essence, but according to existence and actuality is returned to its real ground, actual man, the actual people, and established as its own work. The constitution appears as what it is, the free product of men… democracy is the essence of every political constitution, socialised man under the form of a particular constitution of the state… stands related to other constitutions as the genus to its species; only here the genus itself appears as an existent, and therefore opposed as a particular species to those existents which do not conform to the essence. Democracy relates to all other forms of the state as their Old Testament. Man does not exist because of the law but rather the law exists for the good of man. Democracy is human existence, while in the other political forms man has only legal existence. That is the fundamental difference of democracy.”

Springborg: “Under the aegis of democracy, first the abstract distinction between civil society and the state and second the state itself as an abstraction are surpassed. Thus “in true democracy the political state disappears.” (Marx) This is because democracy as unity of particular and universal, part and whole, is no mere constitutional form but a system whose principles actually govern.” (my emphasis)

“In democracy the constitution, the law, the state, so far as it is political constitution, is itself only a self-determination of the people, and a determinate content of the people.” (Marx)

I understand this to mean that rather than the state being an abstraction set apart from people, under a true democracy the people constitute the state (they are the “essence of the political”) to the extent that the state as a determinate abstract force in society is negated. True democracy is stateless. It is literally the ‘rule of the people’, expressed through social, human existence.

2. Democracy does not require the participation of all members of society as individuals in the decision-making process. Both direct or representative participation is to falsely conceive of the problem. Membership in a true democratic society does not demand participation in the state. The artificial distinction between society and the state is wrong in the first place.

“In a really rational state one could answer, ‘Not every single person should share in deliberating and deciding on political matters of general concern’, because the individuals share in deliberating and deciding on matters of general concern as the ‘all’, that is to say, within and as members of the society. Not all individually, but the individuals as all… Hegel presents himself with the dilemma: either civil society (the Many, the multitude) shares through deputies in deliberating and deciding on political matters of general concern or all [as] I individuals do this. This is no opposition of essence, as Hegel subsequently tries to present it, but of existence, and indeed of the most external existence, quantity. Thus, the basis which Hegel himself designated as external – the multiplicity of members – remains the best reason against the direct participation of all. The question of whether civil society should participate in the legislature either by entering it through deputies or by the direct participation of all as individuals is itself a question within the abstraction of the political state or within the abstract political state; it is an abstract political question.” (Marx)

This is, I think, a warning that questions about ‘participation’ in democracy are situated/trapped in the very conceptual approach they are trying to escape from. To suggest that everyone participate in deciding matters of political concern is to assume that the state continues to remain an abstract political force, apart from people, that benefits quantitatively from the direction of each individual. Marx wants to avoid “the methodological individualism of radical democracy.” (Springborg) In a true democracy, the state is not external to the people and therefore does not and cannot act apart from the will of individuals who act “as all.” It is a fundamentally different conception of large scale human social relations as well as posing a different “ontology” of the political. Marx notes that according to Hegel:

“In its proper form the opposition is this: the individuals participate as all, or the individuals participate as a few, as not all. In both cases allness remains merely an external plurality or totality of individuals. Allness is no essential, spiritual, actual quality of the individual. It is not something through which he would lose the character of abstract individuality. Rather, it is merely the sum total of individuality. One individuality, many individualities, all individualities. The one, the many, the all – none of these determinations changes the essence of the subject, individuality.

All as individuals should share in deliberating and deciding on political matters of general concern; that is to say, then, that all should share in this not as all but as individuals.” (Marx, summarising Hegel)

Where Marx fundamentally differs from Hegel is in his conception of how the state exists as a social form, not in abstraction but ontologically and epistemologically as its members:

“The very notion of member of the state implies their being a member of the state, a part of it, and the state having them as its part. But if they are an integral part of the state, then it is obvious that their social existence is already their actual participation in it. They are not only integral parts of the state, but the state is their integral part. To be consciously an integral part of something is to participate consciously in it, to be consciously integral to it. Without this consciousness the member of the state would be an animal.” (Marx)

To consciously ‘be’ is more than to simply ‘participate’ in something. One’s existence is already participation to the extent that the state can only exist as a form of the social existence of all individuals. What ‘activates’ this integration or transcendence is being/becoming conscious of such an existence. Marx recognises that “it is a tautology that a member of the state, a part of the state, participates in the state, and that this participation can appear only as deliberation or decision”.

“The false alternatives of political participation either as “all” or “not all” is predicated on the abstract separation of civil society and the state, which in turn falsely presumes the political to be constituted by single political acts performed by individuals, focusing exclusively on the legislature as the locus of popular participation.” (Springborg)

“On the other hand, if we are talking about definite concerns, about single political acts, then it is again obvious that not all as individuals accomplish them. Otherwise, the individual would be the true society, and would make society superfluous.” (Marx)

“Let us note that although Marx dismisses the traditional concept of the state as a real collectivity with sovereign power that can represent and be represented, he retains the notion of society as a collectivity in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. One of his objections to the possibility of all participating in political decisions making as individuals is that this proposition is based on a radical individualism that fails to see society itself as a corporate entity representative of the interests of the individuals who constitute it.” (Springborg)

“The question whether all as individuals should share in deliberating and deciding on political matters of general concern is a question that arises from the separation of the political state and civil society.” (Marx)

In a true democracy, where “civil society is actual political society”,

“…it is nonsense to make a claim which has resulted precisely from a notion of the political state as an existent separated from civil society, from the theological notion of the political state. In this situation, legislative power altogether loses the meaning of representative power. Here, the legislature is a representation in the same sense in which every function is representative. For example, the shoemaker is my representative in so far as he fulfils a social need, just as every definite social activity, because it is a species-activity, represents only the species; that is to say, it represents a determination of my own essence the way every man is the representative of the other. Here, he is representative not by virtue of something other than himself which he represents, but by virtue of what he is and does.” (Marx)

I understand this to mean that representative power in a truly democratic society is not determined by legislative power, but rather by social activity which fulfils a social need. One individual is representative of another by virtue of their social activity as a human being. Representation exists in a natural state, before and apart from the fabrication of legislative representation. The shoe-maker represents me through her social activity. I represent the shoe-maker through my social activity. Our social activity is representative of each other and all others of our species. As Springborg notes, Marx goes

“against all attempts to impose the rubric of strict equality in such a way that functional substitution becomes the test of an individual’s integrity as a person. Such levelling egalitarianism is premised on radical individualism that aims to make all persons featureless monads, alike in the sameness and incapable of actualising the rich range of potentialities that human nature promises. Marx’s argument has serious implications for some of the campaigns waged in the name of Marxist humanism, feminism, etc., which, as he predicted, merely reproduce voluntarily the prerequisites for a higher state of capitalism that devours women and children allowing no distinctions of gender, race, ethnicity, etc…” (Springborg)

“For the first time, nature [in capitalist society] becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production. In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.” (Marx, Gundrisse)

This is a reminder, I would add, that in capitalist society, efforts towards ‘equality’ serve the purpose of ensuring everyone equally has the opportunity and capacity to sell (exchange for money – a wage) their labour power, the source of capitalist wealth (value). Marx showed that this is so-called ‘freedom’ under capitalism. Rather than view civil society equally and quantitatively as an abstract ‘population’ of individuals, Marx showed how the abstraction of exchange, (based on abstract labour, the measure of which is socially necessary labour time), is the necessary basis of capitalism’s equality. Human need and the capacity to produce goods and services to meet those needs is the precondition for an equality based on exchange, which capitalism exploits by separating individuals from the means of production (private property) such that they have to sell their labouring capacity in exchange for a wage so as to meet those needs through the exchange of money.

“the individual has an existence only as a producer of exchange value, hence that the whole negation of his natural existence is already implied; that he is therefore entirely determined by society; that this further presupposes a division of labour etc., in which the individual is already posited in relations other than that of mere exchanger, etc. That therefore this presupposition by no means arises either out of the individual’s will or out of the immediate nature of the individual, but that it is, rather, historical, and posits the individual as already determined by society.” (Marx, Gundrisse)

Human need and capacity are mediated indirectly through the abstract equivalence of value in the form of money, rather than the direct and reciprocal labour of individuals. This commodified relationship under capitalism, where both labour-power and its product is commodified , is in one sense unequal in that the labourer is paid less than her labour is worth. For a portion of the day, she works for ‘free’, enabling her employer, the capitalist, to sell the product of labour power for a value which is higher (i.e. not equivalent) than it cost them to produce. Thus, value, the substance of which is abstract labour measured by socially necessary labour time (time, being the ultimate measure of equivalence), determines human equivalence in capitalist society and not the direct meeting of human needs and capacity i.e. inequality (what Marx, in the Grundrisse, called “natural differences”).

“Only the differences between their needs and between their production gives rise to exchange and to their social equation in exchange; these natural differences are therefore the precondition of their social equality in the act of exchange, and of this relation in general, in which they relate to one another as productive. Regarded from the standpoint of the natural difference between them, individual A exists as the owner of a use value for B, and B as owner of a use value for A. In this respect, their natural difference again puts them reciprocally into the relation of equality. In this respect, however, they are not indifferent to one another, but integrate with one another, have need of one another; so that individual B, as objectified in the commodity, is a need of individual A, and vice versa; so that they stand not only in an equal, but also in a social, relation to one another. This is not all. The fact that this need on the part of one can be satisfied by the product of the other, and vice versa, and that the one is capable of producing the object of the need of the other, and that each confronts the other as owner of the object of the other’s need, this proves that each of them reaches beyond his own particular need etc., as a human being, and that they relate to one another as human beings; that their common species-being [Gattungswesen] is acknowledged by all. It does not happen elsewhere — that elephants produce for tigers, or animals for other animals.” (Marx, Grundrisse)

Later Springborg elaborates further, stating that

“equality as mutually substitutable individuals is equality by virtue of a false abstraction. For what is crucial about human beings is the variety and plenitude of their talents and functions. The cultural richness and depth of society is a reflection not of mere numbers of individuals, equal and undifferentiated, but of the opposite. Thus to fix on equality as a critical concept is a sign of intellectual mediocrity that cannot cope with the problem of unity and difference.”

Furthermore, Marx

“… gave depth to the Hegelian analysis by perceiving the phenomenon of exchange, and not merely the arithmetical abstraction of society as a collection of individuals, as the basis for equality. He was thus able to interpret the old socialist slogan demanding justice according to need not as the expression of equality, pace Hegel, but as its opposite, a formula tailored to the specific differences of need and capacity characteristic of individuals. When in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, he boldly proclaimed that distribution according to need, rather than strict equality, would herald the crossing of “the narrow horizon of bourgeois right,” Marx meant what he implied: that equality was an extrapolation from the presuppositions of capitalism. He had said as much in The Holy Family, declaring that the idea of “‘equal possession’ is a political-economic one and therefore still an alienated expression.”

3. Debates over direct or participatory democracy are misled. Political participation rests on universal political suffrage: the vote. Voting, “considered philosophically… is the immediate, the direct, the existing and not simply imagined relation of civil society to the political state”. (Marx) The unity of the political and the social is symbolised by universal suffrage. “Indeed it is the struggle for universal suffrage that brings about the dissolution of the dualism of civil society and the state.” (Springborg)

Thus, the struggle to achieve legislative power is the struggle of civil society to “transform itself into political society, or to make political society into the actual society… [this] shows itself as the drive for the most fully possible universal participation in legislative power.” (Marx) Legislature then, is “an articulation of the political will of the community as such”. (Springborg) Marx argues that it is not the depth of engagement in legislature but the universalism of suffrage that is key, whether active or passive.

“It is not a question of whether civil society should exercise legislative power through deputies or through all as individuals. Rather, it is a question of the extension and greatest possible universalisation of voting, of active as well as passive suffrage.” (Marx)

Rather than see voting as a meaningless exercise, it should be considered philosophically:

“Voting is not considered philosophically, that is, not in terms of its proper nature, if it is considered in relation to the crown or the executive. The vote is the actual relation of actual civil society to the civil society of the legislature, to the representative element. in other words, the vote is the immediate, the direct, the existing and not simply imagined relation of civil society to the political state. It therefore goes without saying that the vote is the chief political interest of actual civil society. In unrestricted suffrage, both active and passive, civil society has actually raised itself for the first time to an abstraction of itself, to political existence as its true universal and essential existence. But the full achievement of this abstraction is at once also the transcendence [Aufhebung] of the abstraction. In actually establishing its political existence as its true existence civil society has simultaneously established its civil existence, in distinction from its political existence, as inessential. And with the one separated, the other, its opposite, falls. Within the abstract political state the reform of voting advances the dissolution [Auflösung] of this political state, but also the dissolution of civil society.” (Marx)

In theory then, universal suffrage transforms, for the first time, the existence of civil society into a political existence. The political state is no longer an abstraction and civil society, its dialectical opposite, is dissolved, too. The outcome of the synthesis of this dialectic, enabled by universal suffrage, is the political existence of all transformed into true social existence. This dissolution, I think, is resolved gradually through the praxis of consciously becoming political: At first with the struggle towards universal suffrage; and then the struggle to understand what this means philosophically and recognise that out-dated and out-moded legislation is no longer deemed suitable or necessary to the historical material conditions of this political existence. Such conditions are conditions of abundance that allow the “natural differences” among people to labour directly with one-another reciprocally, not mediated by the equivalence of exchange value. To labour ‘directly’ does not necessarily mean ‘local’ to one-another face-to-face, but rather directly meeting need with capacity regardless of and without concern for ‘equivalence’.

What does this mean for democracy, equality and freedom in post-capitalist society? Democracy will be the social existence of individuals who no longer have a juridical existence quantified by an abstract state.  A political existence is to be (ontologically and epistemologically) a social human being. i.e. not an individual. Equality will be mutual recognition of the difference in our needs and capacities i.e. inequality. Freedom will be a life of non-reciprocity where ‘equivalence’ is redefined as the meeting of one person’s needs with the abundant social capacity of others. It will be a freedom which tends to our natural differences (not ‘natural rights’), undetermined by ‘exchange’ conceived as an abstract calculation of one’s value.

Reserve army of labour

The Machine and Unemployment by Paul Herzel c.1935
The Machine and Unemployment by Paul Herzel c.1935

“…it is capitalistic accumulation itself that constantly produces, and produces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent, a relativity redundant population of labourers, i.e., a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the self-expansion of capital, and therefore a surplus population… It is the absolute interest of every capitalist to press a given quantity of labour out of a smaller, rather than a greater number of labourers, if the cost is about the same. In the latter case, the outlay of constant capital increases in proportion to the mass of labour set in action; in the former that increase is much smaller. The more extended the scale of production, the stronger this motive. Its force increases with the accumulation of capital.” (Marx, Capital Vol. 1)

Wikipedia: Reserve army of labour

“…to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time…” (Marx, Grundrisse, 705)

“Marx contrasts value, a form of wealth bound to human labor time expenditure, to the gigantic wealth-producing potential of modern science and technology. Value becomes anachronistic in terms of the system of production to which it gives rise; the realization of that potential would entail the abolition of value.” (Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory, 1993, 26)

Is an Open Access journal article a commodity?

I was recently asked this question and here is my reply based on Marx’s critique of the commodity. Implicit in the question is whether something that does not cost anything (zero price) to consume can still be a commodity.

Marx referred to the ‘commodity’ as “the elementary form of wealth. Our investigation begins accordingly with the analysis of the commodity.” That is, we start with the commodity, but have to unravel how it appears in order to understand the totality of capitalist social relations through which it was produced.

To cut to the chase, a commodity is the product of labour which is the source of value. The commodity is not the source of value. The commodity is a ‘bearer’ for value to meet its equivalent value in the market.

“It is the utility of a thing for human life that turns it into a use-value… Use-value realizes itself only in use or in consumption; use-values form the substantial content of wealth, whatever its social form may be. In the form of society which we are going to examine, they form the substantial bearers at the very same time of exchange-value.”

If a product or service deriving from physical and/or mental labour has utility and is consumed by someone other than its producer, it is a commodity. That is not to say that the owner of the commodity will certainly profit from it, but that it simply has the form of a commodity. Marx says nothing about payment here. It’s about two forms of value expressed by the commodity form. If an open access article is a commodity, according to Marx’s analysis, it must have use value and exchange value.

“Hence, commodities are first of all simply to be considered as values, independent of their exchange-relationship or from the form, in which they appear as exchange-values.”

Note that we can identify something as a commodity before knowing its exchange relationship with something else such as money (money is a universal equivalent in the exchange relationship). The price of something, even if zero, does not tell us whether it is a commodity or not. We must not confuse “price” with “value”. It’s about whether its utility is exchangeable and is destined for exchange. It’s about whether the thing is conceived abstractly as an equivalence of something else. What might that be?

If something can be deemed a commodity prior to knowing its eventual equivalence in exchange, then the commodity-ness of it must be the result of something prior to the act of exchange; that is, what is the source of value? Labour.

“The common social substance which merely manifests itself differently in different use-values, is ­ labour. Commodities as values are nothing but crystallized labour.”

I don’t think it’s easy at first to understand the distinction between use value, exchange value and value, but basically, things can have a use value without an exchange value and therefore only possess use value and not value. Value is the form that the use value and the exchange value take in the commodity. You can’t have value without the thing having an exchange value, but the thing can have use value without an exchange value (i.e. I can bake a cake for myself. It’s use is nourishment and pleasure, but it was not produced for the purpose of exchange, unless I become a baker).

Anyway, a commodity = value. What is the source of that value? It’s labour. Therefore, the substance of a commodity = labour.

“A use-value or good only has a value because labour is objectified or materialized in it.”

What is labour? Well, remember that we’re talking about labour in capitalist societies. We’re not concerned with any trans-historical sense of ‘labour’ as effort of some kind, but rather the nature of labour predominant today.

Marx shows that labour can also be analysed as having two forms: concrete and abstract labour. Concrete labour is the physiological effort that has a use. For example, I can employ intellectual and physical effort to write an article or to teach – that’s a concrete, useful expression of my labour power. Abstract labour is the form of equivalence in which capitalist labour is expressed and measured by time. Together, concrete and abstract labour = capitalist labour.

How are these forms of labour expressed in the life of an academic or anyone else? As use value and exchange value. Marx referred to this discovery of the “twofold character of labour” as “one of the two best points in my book (Capital)”. If labour is expressed as both use value and exchange value, then that, of course, makes it a commodity, too. Marx called it a “peculiar” commodity, because it is the only commodity which is capable of producing more value. How does it produce value? Either by lengthening the amount of time one labours (which has natural limits) or by introducing efficiencies in the labour process (e.g. greater division of labour, metrics, KPIs, new technologies and various innovations which replace the useful function of labour, etc.) Either way, the commodity of labour is able to produce a greater amount of commodities than before and therefore more value than before.

Finally and briefly, how is value created? Well, the capitalist pays the worker less than their labour is worth. That is, the employer does not pay the worker an equivalence of their labour power in money. Everywhere commodities are exchanged for their equivalence in the market except the commodity of labour power. That is exploitation. In this usage, ‘exploitation’ does not refer to the working conditions of the worker (the conditions might be wonderful), but rather the worker/labourer/employee/academic (different labels, same person) is not paid what they are worth to their employer. For the worker, there is a bare minimum that they need to sell their labour power for in order to survive, which differs across time and locale. Anything above that is to the benefit of the worker but to the detriment of their employer who is compelled by competitive markets to create surplus value (i.e. profit).

Competitive forces, driven by improved forms of efficiency and innovation, constantly push the price of the commodity down and therefore require the capitalist to ensure that the commodity of labour power is as low as possible, too, so that they continue to produce surplus value. If they don’t produce surplus value, they can’t invest and improve their product and another capitalist will beat them in the market because they did keep wages down, invest part of the surplus in innovation and lower their price.

In a university, we therefore have to first ask ourselves: what is the source of the institution’s value? The answer, according to Marx, has to be labour. Then we ask, how is that value expressed? Again, according to Marx, it is expressed in the form of commodities. What are those commodities? I think we can say they are the product of teaching and learning (e.g. the student, whose labour power we help improve, the courses we develop, validate and sell to the student), and research (e.g. patents, papers, books, etc.) which are, at some point, paid for in money as the equivalence of the specific commodity. (We often use the word ‘attract’ rather than ‘paid for’ – our work ‘attracts’ research income).

There may not be a direct relationship between the OA paper and money like there is for non-OA articles, but if the OA paper is used by someone to improve their labour, which is being paid for by a wage, then there is an equivalence between the wage which pays the worker to improve their labour power which makes them a better teacher, researcher, etc. which results in them writing more/better papers, reproducing better students, improving the reputation of the institution, attracting more external revenue of one kind or another. The point is, that capital is a social relation and the creation of value is a dynamic social process that can be distilled down to the time it takes for labour to produce a commodity: “socially necessary labour time”.

Up until recently, UK universities haven’t had to worry so much about the exchange value (value) of their commodities, because of significant public subsidy. A university which exists in a non-subsidised, competitive market, will be forced to analyse itself in this way, and we see this in the various techniques of metrics, costing of courses, emphasis on ‘staff development’, and so on. If OA research outputs do not appear as commodities, it’s because the forces of competition and the measure of productivity haven’t fully caught up with their producers yet. These things take time. Look at what’s happened to the Internet over the last two decades.

As we know, the writing of a journal paper is a huge undertaking in terms of labour time. Most academics write them partially outside of their contracted employment time. This is an example of how labour in the university is paid less than its value (‘exploited’). Innovations in publishing (e.g. word processing, ePrints, OJS) also help reduce the labour time of producing an article. In the case of Open Access, the price of the journal article to the reader is zero, but the value of the paper to the academic’s employer is something else. In the UK, the REF is now the main measure of value of journal articles, regardless of their price to the reader. What happens in preparation for the REF? There’s a huge amount of activity in the academic labour market as employers seek to purchase better sources of value prior to the periodic measure of value being undertaken. The REF determines the exchange value (value) of the journal article, not the purchase price. As such, the REF is also one measure of the value of academic labour, the primary source of all value in higher education.

All quotes from:

These chapters are directly relevant, too:

An escape from value is an escape from the economic

In some earlier notes, I argued that Jossa’s conception of a Labour Managed Firm (a form of worker co-operative where the workers democratically divide the surplus rather than receive a wage) did not take into account the central, determining role that value plays in controlling the labour process in any organisation. I said that “What Jossa seems to overlook is that ‘value’, not the wage, mediates labour in a capitalist society.” I wrote:

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

I am currently re-reading John Holloway’s book, Crack Capitalism, and in thesis nine, section four, he makes a strong case for the determinate logic of value, which I think speaks directly against Jossa’s argument for LMF co-operatives and to any form of market socialist enterprise. 1 Below, I quote at length…

“Value is what holds society together under capitalism. It is a force that nobody controls. Capitalism is composed of a huge number of independent units which produce commodities that they sell on the market. The social interconnection between people’s activities is established through the sale and purchase of commodities or, in other words, through the value of the commodities, expressed through money. Value (manifested in money) constitutes the social synthesis in capitalist society, that which holds together the many different, uncoordinated activities. The state presents itself as being the focal point of social cohesion, but in fact the state is dependent on money and can do little to influence its movement.

… Behind money stands value, the all-conquering drive of the cheap commodity, the commodity produced in the least amount of time. This is hard to resist.

… We can occupy factories, set up our alternative systems of production, but we will not be able to match the prices of capitalist commodities, we will not be able to produce things as cheaply and as quickly, and, if we were, we would probably be producing them in just the same way as the capitalists.

Value is incompatible with self-determination, or indeed with any form of conscious determination. Value is the rule of necessary labour time, of the shortest time necessary to produce a commodity. Value is controlled by nobody. Capitalists are capitalists not because they control value, but because they serve it.

How can we resist the rule of the cheap commodity and all that it brings with it, especially when the struggle to survive shapes the lives of so many people in the world? The traditional answer is that the only way is a system of planned production that would be even more efficient than capitalism and would respond to people’s real needs. Traditional socialist analysis contrasts the anarchy of the market with the rationality of central planning, but in practice central planning has never been either rational or central, and it certainly has not been an example of self-determination.

… If there is no central planning, then how do we coordinate our different processes of creation or production, if not through the market? And if we produce for the market, what distinguishes us from any other capitalist enterprise?

Whatever the crack, whatever the form of the struggle to break with capitalism, value lays siege, not just as an external force, but through the corrosive, destructive force of money. Money embodies the rationality of capitalism that stands against the non-sense of rebellion. In capitalism, it is the movement of value that determines what should be done and how it should be done: no human, not even the capitalist class, makes those determinations.

Value attacks as a force operating behind our backs, as the silent power of money, introducing cheap commodities, luring people away in the hope of escaping from poverty (the Zapatistas that migrate to find employment in Cancun, for instance). As market, it also stands against us as a palpable limit to what we can do.

Occupied factories, like the hundreds occupied in Argentina in recent years, face immediately the question of their relation to the market. In general, the factories occupied (or ‘recovered’) were faced with closure before the occupation – closure motivated by the inability of their owners to sell their products on the market. When the workers seize the factory, they are faced with the dilemma of having to produce the same commodities for sale on the market: that is the only way that they can ensure their own physical survival. It may be possible to introduce different working relations within the factory or workplace, to do away with hierarchies or introduce the rotation of tasks; it may be possible to use the workplace after working hours for political meetings or cultural activities, but all such changes (significant though they undoubtedly are) take place within the context of the pressures generated by the need to sell the products as commodities on the market. It may perhaps be possible to change the nature of the commodities produced, to produce things that are more obviously socially beneficial, but this will depend on the skills of the workers and the equipment at their disposal, and any alternative products will, in any case, normally require to be sold as commodities on the market.

The action of value may be very subtle and gradual. Fighting it is much more difficult than throwing stones at the police. Many radical groups have seen producing cooperatively for the market as an alternative to working for a capitalist company, or accepting funds from the state. It is an alternative, but at what point does the market impose itself to create the same sort of pressures as exist in any capitalist enterprise? Is there any escape?

… The point is surely that there is no purity here. In order to create a different world, we need to survive physically and, unless we cultivate our own food from the land (a real possibility in the case of peasant revolutionary groups, but difficult in the cities), this requires some sort of access to money, and money, whether it comes from external funding or crime or some sort of employment, always brings limitations and contradictions with it. The challenge is always to see to what extent we can use money without being used by it, without allowing our activities and our relations to be determined by it.

Funding can perhaps be seen as a particular way of building structures of mutual support. A more direct way of doing this is to construct links of mutual assistance between the different cracks.

… This building of links of mutual support between the different cracks in capitalist domination is sometimes seen in terms of the construction of an alternative economy or an economy of solidarity (economia solidaria). This refers to the construction of an economy that is not dominated by value or the pursuit of profit. This is an important development, but there are problems. First, the notion of an alternative economy already seems to impose a definition on the organisation of activities. If I say ‘No, I will not follow the logic of capital, I shall do something else’, then I do not consider my other-doing to be economic, but rather an escape from the economic. In addition, the notion of an alternative economy or economy of solidarity can easily obscure the fact that our other-doing is an act of rebellion, an against-and-beyond. If this against-ness is overlooked, the alternative economy can become simply a complement to capitalist production. If this is the case, then far from constituting a break in capitalist social relations, it helps to underpin them. Certainly, at the end of the day what we want is a social connection based on trust, solidarity, generosity, gift, in place of the social synthesis of value, but for the moment this can only exist as an assault on value, not as a complement to value production.

Value is the enemy, but it is an invisible enemy, the invisible hand that holds capitalism together and tears the world apart. Value creates a powerful and complex field of tension around all our attempted breaks with capitalism, in which it is difficult to draw clear lines between what is ‘revolutionary’ and what is ‘reformist’. Beyond the state, beyond our personal contradictions, it is value, the power of the market, of the cheap commodity, of money, that threatens all the time to overwhelm our cracks.”

The key to overcoming the determinate logic of value is an understanding of the “twofold character of labour according to whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange-value”, which Marx regarded as one of the two “best points in my book (Capital)” (Marx, Letter to Engels 24th August 1867). Most of Holloway’s Crack Capitalism is about the two-fold character of labour (use value and exchange value of commodities, and the corresponding concrete labour and abstract labour). Further on in the book, he reflects on the thesis on value and proposes a way to counter value:

“Going to the root of things and understanding that root as our own activity is crucial. Think back to the previous discussion of the force of value and the way in which it imposes the social synthesis upon us (thesis 9, 4). That section was very depressing to write and should be depressing to read because we feel that there is no way out. It is when we open up value and ask what it is that produces value and see that it is our own activity, our abstract labour, then the skies begin to open, we begin to see a way forward, simply because it is not a thing (value), but our own activity that is at the centre. There is a world of difference, then, between an analysis that takes value as its pivot and one (such as this) that places the dual character of labour in its centre.”

Contrary to this approach, in dismissing abstract labour as something overcome in the wage-less Labour Managed Firm, Jossa remains trapped by an economistic understanding of social relations and therefore trapped by value. The same can be said for the worker co-operative form in general. It is a transitional organisational form that moves away from attributes of capitalist labour (towards ownership of the means of production, a democratic division of surplus), but does not in itself overcome the determination of value imposed by the competition of the market.

Freedom is not the emancipation of labour, as in Jossa’s argument, but rather the emancipation from the twofold character of labour, a point also made by Postone, Neary, the Krisis group and others.

Performativity and the peculiar commodity of labour power

Man with his ventriloquist dummy c1870
Man with his ventriloquist dummy c1870


At a doctoral research seminar last week, we discussed Stephen J. Ball’s (2003) article, The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. This is a highly cited article and one in series of articles Ball has written about ‘performativity’. Below are my notes and an attempt to re-articulate points of Ball’s argument using Marx’s critical analysis of labour, which I think offers a complementary and often preferable method of understanding the ‘teacher’s soul’. I propose three ways of understanding performativity, which I only touch on here, but will return to another time.


‘Performativity’, according to Ball, is one of three “policy technologies” of education reform, the other two being ‘the markets’ and ‘managerialism’.

Performativity is

“a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change – based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organisations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organisation within a field of judgement. The issue of who controls the field of judgement is crucial.” (216)

These technologies of reform are “unstable, uneven but apparently unstoppable”.  They are becoming “embedded in the ‘assumptive worlds’ of many academic educators”. They change what we do and who we are. This reform has created “institutional schizophrenia”, characterised by a “devolved environment”, managed through “monitoring systems and the production of information”. These technologies

“are not simply vehicles for the technical and structural change of organisations but are also mechanisms for reforming teachers (scholars and researchers) and for changing what is means to be a teacher, the technologies of reform produce new kinds of teacher subjects.” (217)

In this “advanced liberal” environment , de-regulation is a process of re-regulation, de-control is a new form of control, a less visible state regulates through the self-regulation of new subjectivities: “enterprising subjects” who “live an existence of calculation” and undertake “intensive work on the self”.

“To be relevant, up-to-date, one needs to talk about oneself and others, and think about actions and relationships in new ways. New roles and subjectivities are produced as teachers are re-worked as producers/providers, educational entrepreneurs and managers and are subject to regular appraisal and review and performance comparisons. We learn to talk about ourselves and the relationships, purposes and motivations in these new ways. The new vocabulary of performance renders old ways of thinking and relating dated or redundant or even obstructive.” (218)

This “form of ventriloquism” is surveilled by “appraisal systems, target-setting, output comparisons”, etc. and leads to “security seeking tactics”, “existential anxiety and dread”. The “neo-liberal professional” performs within and as part of a regulatory environment where “value replaces values.”  It is an “inauthentic”, “contradictory” existence that is “ontologically insecure”. The teacher’s “purposes are made contradictory, motivations become blurred and self worth is uncertain.” The schizophrenia of the institutions leads to “a kind of values schizophrenia” with “a potential ‘splitting’ between the teacher’s own judgements about ‘good practice’ and student ‘needs’ and the rigours of performance.”

“This structural and individual schizophrenia of values and purposes, and the potential for inauthenticity and meaninglessness is increasingly an everyday experience for all. The activities of the new technical intelligentsia, of management, drive performativity into the day-to-day practices of teachers and into the social relations between teachers. They make management, ubiquitous, invisible, inescapable – part of and embedded in everything we do. Increasingly, we choose and judge our actions and they are judged by others on the basis of their contribution to organizational performance, rendered in terms of measurable outputs. Beliefs are no longer important – it is output that counts. Beliefs are part of an older, increasingly displaced discourse.” (223)

It leads to “guilt, uncertainty, instability and the emergence of a new subjectivity”. It leads to struggles that “are often internalised and set the care of the self against the duty to others.”  “Performance has no room for caring… these are things we do to ourselves and to others.”

Performativity is characterised by ventriloquism, schizophrenia and a “fabrication” both of the organisation and the individual. “Truthfulness is not the point – the point is their effectiveness” and its measure. The transformation of the organisation into an “auditable commodity” is a “game” which reproduces a “recognisable rationality which is underpinned by ‘robust procedures’, punctuated by ‘best practice’, and always ‘improving’, always looking for ‘what works’.” The organisational game involves fabricating “transparency”, through “creative accountancy” and outright “cheating”. This transparency, which is intended to reveal more of the “auditable commodity” (i.e. the organisation), “may actually result in making it more opaque, as representational artefacts are increasingly constructed with great deliberation and sophistication.”  Thus, the “educational project” (i.e. the commodity) is “left empty”.  “Effectivity rather than honesty is most valued in a performative regime.”

Ball (following Lyotard) concludes by arguing that by being commodified, knowledge is “exteriorised” and consequently “de-socialised”.  As a result, teachers are struggling with and against the effects of commodification, which

“involves a profound shift in the nature of the relationship between workers and their work – ‘service’ commitments no longer have value or meaning and professional judgement is subordinated to the requirements of performativity and marketing”. (226)

It results in a “corrosion of character” where

“The policy technologies of market, management and performativity leave no space of an autonomous or collective ethical self. These technologies have potentially profound consequences for the nature of teaching and learning and for the inner-life of the teacher.” (226)


In my view, what Ball describes in this rich polemical essay, is capitalist work as “a form of living death”. (Dinerstein and Neary, 2002, 11) The importance for me of his article is that it eloquently extends the vocabulary that I have used to describe my own work to my family, friends and colleagues: “Schizophrenic”; “intensive work on the self”;  “de-control as a new form of control”; “an existence of calculation”; “purposes are made contradictory, motivations become blurred and self worth is uncertain.” These are all words or re-articulated versions of phrases I have used to refer to my own working life. My own life. The value of Ball’s article is an assurance that I am not alone, yet as a form of living death, I now see we are in hell together.

Yet, this is not hell and I am not dying. Ball’s article describes, and to some extent, analyses capitalist work as it appears in universities, colleges and schools. What appears is a performance of what is experienced, what is felt, and retold by teachers quoted in his article, but it is insufficient as an explanation for what actually ‘lies behind’ the performance and keeps it running. Is it really an unstoppable “epidemic” of reform ideas “‘carried’ by powerful agents, like the World Bank and the OECD”?  I think Ball is right to refer to the World Bank and OECD as ‘agents’ that are carrying out reform. However, what his article doesn’t analyse for us is the performative nature of those agents. Who are they agents for? What are they agents of? What is their role in the “game”? In fact, what is this “improvement game”?

We have to look elsewhere for a more satisfying analysis, whereupon I think we can understand performativity in three ways:

  1. Performativity as the appearance of something else
  2. Performativity as the embodiment of something else
  3. Performativity as having become something else


“To prevent possible misunderstanding, a word. I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose [i.e., seen through rose-tinted glasses]. But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.” (Marx, 1867, Preface to Capital)

When Marx wrote this Preface to Capital, he added this paragraph so as to make very clear that reference to individuals should be understood as personifications of economic categories. This is not a matter of style, but is essential to his historical materialist method. Thus, the “capitalist” and the “worker” are personifications of the relationship between the category of ‘capital’ and that of ‘labour’.

The problem with Ball’s article, despite all its descriptive and emotive power,  is that his analysis in this paper does not extend to a discussion of the economic categories which have set the “unstoppable” technologies of reform in motion, and the “agents” are reified as the World Bank and OECD, rather than being understood themselves as personifications of capital. He does not recognise that the capitalists are in fact personifications of capital and that the “assumptive world” of “new kinds of teacher subjects” and their subjectivities, is the world and subjectivity of capital. No wonder that in this “advanced liberal” world, “value replaces values.” Lift the lid of the World Bank and look inside at all the capitalists: individuals, who are themselves simply performing their role.

If this really is “apparently unstoppable” as Ball states, we have to uncover the “determinate logic” (Postone, 1993, 285) behind this “game” or else live with the helplessness (Postone, 2006 [PDF]) instilled by Ball’s essay: truly, a form of living death. The heart still beats, but the mind and body are capital’s host.

Marx makes frequent reference to the language of performativity when critiquing political economy. 2 We learn of “masks“, “personifications” and “dramatis personae“, of which the key characters are the capitalist and the worker, each of whom perform a role in capital’s “self-valorisation of value“. These references to performativity are not simply a matter of literary flourish but relate to Marx’s scientific method of critique, which aims to distinguish between the appearance of things in their concrete form and their real nature as abstract categories that dominate us.

As Ball rightly argues, education has become a commodity, but we know from Marx that the commodity form is a fetish; it is a form of wealth presented to us through the capitalist mode of production and so to understand how education appears as a commodity we must analyse the “hidden abode of production”. (Capital, Vol. 1)

The important point for us here is that while the commodity is the “economic cell form” of capitalist society, from which everything else should be analysed, there is a special, “peculiar” commodity: that of labour power. It is special because, Marx argues, it is “a source of value”, the only commodity that can create new value for the capitalist either by extending time (i.e. lengthening the working day – which has its natural limits) or by compressing time i.e. increasing the productivity of labour through various methods of efficiency.

It is this, I would argue, that is key to understanding what lies behind Ball’s observations around the performativity of labour in education. In their performativity, teachers are enacting and gradually embodying what, in the end, amount to intended efficiencies that derive greater value their labour power. Capital’s imperative to create value from labour is at the heart of this performance. 3

To press this further, the “schizophrenia” of performativity that Ball describes can be understood as an acute manifestation of capital’s myriad of commodity forms. Reflecting on the “terror” of this ‘madness’, we see that capital is personified simultaneously by the institution and its teacher. Labour finally recognises itself as what it can only be: a form of capital, the substance value. 4 Do not confuse this with the liberal category of ‘human capital’, since this conversion of labour power into capital, is, as Ball recognises, de-humanising, evident in the “inauthentic”, “contradictory” and “ontologically insecure” existence of teachers. Capital in human form is a different thing altogether.


I will end, for now, with a quote from Rikowski (2003), whose important article, Alien Life: Marx and the Future of the Human, 5 is a counter to the helplessness instilled by Ball’s account of performativity. Like Ball, Rikowski also studies education, but goes much further in analysing why “value replaces values” and provides a theoretical framework based on Marx for teachers to face their terrors and reclaim their soul.

“On the basis of Marx’s definition of labour-power, we can define labour- power as including not just ‘skills’ and knowledge, the foundation of much mainstream education research. It also incorporates the attitudes and personality traits essential for effective performance within the labour process. It depends, therefore, on what is included within ‘mental capabilities’. Empirical research on the recruitment process, where employers assess labour-powers, suggests ‘mental capabilities’ must include work attitudes, social attitudes and personality traits – aspects of our ‘personalities’. These, too, are incorporated within labour-power as it transforms itself into labour.

In contemporary capitalist society, education and training are elements within definite forms of labour-power’s social production. Empirically, these forms show wide variation. The significant point is that the substance of the social universe of capital (value) rests upon our labour, which in turn hinges on labour-power being transformed into labour in the labour process for the production of (im/material) commodities which incorporate value in its ‘cell form’. Labour-power (its formation and quality), rests (though not exclusively) upon education and training in contemporary capitalism. This is the real significance of education and training in capitalism today. What constitutes ‘capitalist’ schooling and training as precisely capitalist is that it is implicated in generating the substance of the social universe of capital: value. We have come full circle. It appears that we are trapped within a labyrinth bounded by the margins of capital’s universe. Thus, it seems that, to destroy this social universe for human liberation, it must be imploded. The best place to begin this project is with a critique of the strange, living commodity, labour-power.” (144-145)