There is an understandable tendency among critics of the current crisis in higher education to want to restore the university to what it once was, to defend the university from changing into something else, to resist the subsumption of academic labour under capital. I think this misunderstands the university as a means of production and its historical role.


Through research I have been doing on US higher education, it is clear to me that there have been at least four, often concurrent processes of valorisation, in which universities were increasingly subsumed into the capital relation, always at the encouragement of some academics and the opposition of others:

  1. Land Grants (late 19th c.), which provided federal funding for the establishment of the first research universities. Attached to this was the practice of academic consultancy to industry;
  2. The patenting of research (early 20th c.), whereby universities hesitantly and gradually, over several decades, internalised the idea and processes of commercialising research, culminating in the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act;
  3. WWII and Cold War funding (mid 20th c.). The establishment of government funding agencies and the military-industrial-academic complex;
  4. Venture Capital (mid 20th c.), as a model of issuing capital to transform publicly-funded research into commodities.

Overall, this has been a gradual process of turning academic labour power into “productive labour” i.e. a form of valorisation. It should be no surprise that the experiment of neo-liberalism has led to the marketisation of higher education, nor that efforts to resist this have been largely impotent. Following Postone, I think that attempts to resist the valorisation of higher education so as to restore an earlier configuration – when the university was not widely perceived as an engine for growth – are misguided.

When critically approaching the university as a means of production for the valorisation of capital, an emancipatory effort might focus instead on re-appropriating the means of knowledge production through efforts to control the substance of value: the labour process. This, I think, would require new models of democratic higher education organised through the co-operation of academic labour.

Central to Marx’s conception of the overcoming of capitalism is his notion of people’s reappropriation of the socially general knowledge and capacities that had been constituted historically as capital. We have seen that, according to Marx, such knowledge and capacities, as capital, dominate people; such re- appropriation, then, entails overcoming the mode of domination characteristic of capitalist society, which ultimately is grounded in labor’s historically specific role as a socially mediating activity. Thus, at the core of his vision of a postcapitalist society is the historically generated possibility that people might begin to control what they create rather than being controlled by it. Postone (1993: 373)

However, as I have previously written, overcoming the mode of production (i.e. ‘capitalism’) does not necessarily follow taking control of the means of production (so-called ‘socialist’ states are evidence of this), but it is surely only through achieving a democratic, co-operative control of the means, that the mode of production can be overcome. Historically, this suggests that efforts to resist the mode of production require both control over the means of production as well as a penetrating critique of the socially dominant mode of production.


In his article, History and Helplessness, Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism, Moishe Postone discusses the notion of resistance in light of the historical development of capitalism.

The notion of resistance frequently expresses a deeply dualistic worldview that tends to reify both the system of domination and the idea of agency. It is rarely based on a reflexive analysis of possibilities for fundamental change that are both generated and suppressed by a dynamic heteronomous order. In that sense it lacks reflexivity. It is an undialectical category that does not grasp its own conditions of possibility; that is, it fails to grasp the dynamic historical context of which it is a part. (Postone, 2006: 108)

This passage implies that agency should not be measured by the extent that we are able to resist or abolish the system of domination, but instead a dialectical approach would recognise that a post-capitalist university would be developed out of the conditions of possibility which the existing university has produced. In other words, an ‘anti-capitalist’ approach misses both the point of resistance and the target. What is required is the overcoming of the capitalist modes of valorisation.

Within the framework of the interpretation I have been presenting, overcoming capitalism entails far more than overcoming private ownership of the means of production, however important that might be. It also entails getting beyond (overcoming, not abolishing) the structuring abstract/ concrete forms of capitalism. The analysis of the commodity and capital suggests that an important aspect of that overcoming would be the development of a different form of universality, one that could encompass difference while remaining general, one that overcomes the one-sidedness of both abstract universality and concrete particularity. (Postone, 2012: 30)


Postone’s analysis of capitalism, based on his reading of Marx, is useful to us for a number of reasons: 1)I am drawing from a number of Postone’s articles, but in this case, especially History and Helplnessness

  1. Postone shows that capital is a historical mode of production, which structures all social life. It is dynamic and heteronomous.
  2. As the ‘logic’ of all social life, capital is determinate and appears as a historical necessity. 2)As the saying goes: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” As such, capital renders a feeling of powerlessness and contingency is limited to processes of reform or amelioration within the constraints imposed by capital. The ‘achievements’ of, for example, social democracy, suggest to us a degree of historical indeterminacy and the possibility of freedom, yet they consistently occur within the constraints imposed by capital. For Postone, actual historical indeterminacy (i.e. freedom) can only be realised in a post-capitalist social form of life.
  3. An immanent, dialectical critique of capital as a form of social relations (not a material thing as conventionally understood), reveals that what appears as an abstract, mysterious, governing totality, is essentially contradictory and it is the internal tensions of its ‘logic’, which offer the historical basis for overcoming capitalism. The possibility of overcoming capitalism lies within the contradictions of capitalism itself i.e. within the commodity form.
  4. Anti-capitalist efforts typically fetishise the abstract logic of capital in an effort to perceive some thing to oppose e.g. American hegemony, the State, Bankers. Postone considers this turn from the abstract to the concrete as “an expression of a deep and fundamental helplessness, conceptually as well as politically.”

Taking this view, the trajectory of higher education and its conceived role and purpose in public life over the last century can only be fully understood through a critique of capitalism as the historical mode of production which (re-)produces the university. This critical, intellectual effort must be combined with practical efforts to take control of the means of knowledge production so as to assume a democratic, co-operative form.

References   [ + ]

1. I am drawing from a number of Postone’s articles, but in this case, especially History and Helplnessness
2. As the saying goes: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Notes towards a critique of ‘Labour Managed Firms’

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

My previous post outlined the key points from my reading of Egan and Jossa. In these notes, I reflect critically on the significance of labour-managed co-operatives, which are at the centre of their respective and related arguments. 1)As always, the production of knowledge is a social, co-operative endeavour. I am grateful to my colleagues, Sarah Amsler, Richard Hall, Mike Neary and Gary Saunders for the discussions we are having in helping me further my understanding of these issues.

Characteristics of a labour-managed co-operative firm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Simon Clarke (1979: 4)

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

Elson (1979: i)

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

Postone (1993: 188-90)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A determinate mode of production

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

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

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

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

Attacking the groundwork

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



References   [ + ]

1. As always, the production of knowledge is a social, co-operative endeavour. I am grateful to my colleagues, Sarah Amsler, Richard Hall, Mike Neary and Gary Saunders for the discussions we are having in helping me further my understanding of these issues.
2. Throughout these notes, text in bold is my emphasis.
3. By ‘form’, I do not mean ‘type’, but use the word in the same way that Marx often used it to refer to a social ‘configuration’ or ‘arrangement’, i.e. value form, commodity form.

The association of free and equal producers

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

Key points from Egan and Jossa papers 1)Thanks to my colleague, Mike Neary, who made me aware of these authors. Mike is writing a paper entitled ‘A Co-op Alternative to the Neo-Liberal University’ for the Co-op Education Against the Crises conference, Manchester, 4th July.

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

References   [ + ]

1. Thanks to my colleague, Mike Neary, who made me aware of these authors. Mike is writing a paper entitled ‘A Co-op Alternative to the Neo-Liberal University’ for the Co-op Education Against the Crises conference, Manchester, 4th July.

The university is itself a means of production

If we examine the whole [labour] process from the point of view of its result, the product, it is plain that both the instruments and the subject of labour, are means of production, and that the labour itself is productive labour. (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, Ch. 7)

Following on from my earlier notes, I wanted to be clearer about what I understand by the ‘means of production’.

Marx clearly defines the ‘means of production’ as “the instruments and the subjects of labour”, which, when combined with human labour i.e. work, becomes a productive force.

The elementary factors of the labour-process are 1, the personal activity of man, i.e., work itself, 2, the subject of that work [i.e. raw materials or the product of a previous labour process – in our case ‘prior knowledge’], and 3, its instruments [i.e. technology, buildings, roads, etc.]. (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, Ch. 7)

Therefore, when we speak of the university itself as a ‘means of production’, we refer to the configuration of its ‘instruments’ (e.g. technology, buildings, etc.), and the ‘subject of labour’ (e.g. prior knowledge). In other words, the ‘means of production’ refers to the university’s structural, technological and bureaucratic configuration as a form of capital for the production of knowledge. The university incorporates prior knowledge into its production process and the knowledge it produces is offered as the ‘subject of labour’ elsewhere, resulting in capital accumulation (i.e. growth).

The academic and student are brought together by this configuration in order to produce new knowledge through their labour. However, in a content-driven form of higher education, the student’s role shifts towards that of a consumer of knowledge which is produced by academics and, increasingly, through a global, social process that is distributed via mass forms of communication e.g. the Internet. In this consumer role, the student is profoundly dis-empowered, having become integral to the exchange process (the moment at which surplus value/profit is realised), rather than the production process (the moment at which value is created).

If the purpose of higher education is the production of knowledge, its product is knowledge and so we must examine the whole labour process from this standpoint, beginning not from the exchange process, nor from the point of view of its instruments (i.e. technology) but from the labour process.

That labourer alone is productive, who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, and thus works for the self-expansion of capital. If we may take an example from outside the sphere of production of material objects, a schoolteacher is a productive labourer, when, in addition to belabouring the heads of their scholars, they work like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out their capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory, does not alter the relation. Hence the notion of a productive labourer implies not merely a relation between work and useful effect, between labourer and product of labour, but also a specific, social relation of production, a relation that has sprung up historically and stamps the labourer as the direct means of creating surplus-value. To be a productive labourer is, therefore, not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.(Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Chapter 16)

Finally, a word of caution on the use of the term ‘immaterial labour‘ to refer to the labour of academics and students.

Marx never used the term ‘immaterial labour’. Obviously this should not deter us from using the term if it is a useful development of Marx’s critique of political economy, but in this case, it is not. Marx was aware of the term ‘immaterial labour’, but critical of it as a reified, liberal concept that contributes to class division. Those who use the term ‘immaterial labour’ to refer to the work of academia usually do so in a polemical, political way. In this sense it is a positive, fetish category, rather than the basis of a negative, critical standpoint. It offers nothing to the clarity of meaning that Marx provides with his own critique of labour and can be easily confused with the essential category of ‘abstract labour’. If labour can indeed be distinguished as ‘immaterial’, then following Marx, we might assume there are ‘immaterial commodities’, too, and the historical-materialist method is abandoned. Marx’s critique of the commodity form, value and labour are comprehensive and inclusive of what we might think of as material and immaterial and to start with ‘immaterial labour’ is to start from a position which is against Marx.

Of course, the ideas around ‘immaterial labour’ raised by Lazzaranto, Negri and others are interesting, but ultimately add nothing to a critical theory of commodity production as the basis of capitalist social relations.  For a concise and critical examination of the expression ‘immaterial labour’, see Haug (2009). For an expansive study of intellectual (not ‘immaterial’) and manual labour, see Sohn-Rethel (1978).

For our purposes in understanding the university itself as a means of production, the labour of students and academics is encapsulated by Marx when he states:

On the one hand all labour is, speaking physiologically, an expenditure of human labour-power, and in its character of identical abstract human labour, it creates and forms the value of commodities. On the other hand, all labour is the expenditure of human labour-power in a special form and with a definite aim, and in this, its character of concrete useful labour, it produces use-values. (Capital Vol. 1, Chapter 1)

To conceive all labour in its general (cf. ‘abstractnot immaterial) form is to begin to understand the role of labour in capitalist society.

Notes on the university and the means of production

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any “anti-capitalism” which seeks the immediate negation of the abstract and glorifies the concrete – instead of practically and theoretically considering what the historical overcoming of both could mean – can, at best, be socially and politically impotent in the face of capital. At worst it can be dangerous, even if the needs it expresses could be interpreted as emancipatory.

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

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

Notes on Heidegger’s ‘The Question Concerning Technology’

I absorb ideas better when I take notes. Here are my notes on Heidegger’s essay, The Question Concerning Technology 1)I found this online version slightly easier to read than the version in the book of the same name.. Elsewhere, there’s also a comprehensive guide to the essay and a useful blogged summary.

I’ve got to say, it’s one of the most difficult texts I’ve ever read, despite going between two translations in the hope of a little clarity. However, while he seems to spin a syntax of his own at times, Heidegger’s overall message is pretty clear and simple: The poetic roots of technology have been obscured by mechanisation that has compelled us to harness nature’s energy into an accumulated homogeneous reserve that conceals the true nature of things. In this world, humans too, have become resources, slaves to a process that constructs an appearance of truth rather than a revelation of the real. The solution is to question and confront technology through its forgotten roots in the arts.

Heidegger’s 32 page essay was originally a series of lectures he gave in 1949, entitled: The Thing, Enframing, The Danger, and The Turning. He begins by setting out the reasons for his questioning:

Questioning builds a way. We would be advised, therefore, above all to pay heed to the way, and not to fix our attention on isolated sentences and topics. The way is one of thinking. All ways of thinking, more or less perceptibly, lead through language in a manner that is extraordinary. We shall be questioning concerning technology, and in so doing we should like to prepare a free relationship to it. The relationship will be free if it opens our human existence to the essence of technology. When we can respond to this essence, we shall be able to experience the technological within its own bounds.

Heidegger is concerned with questioning the essence of technology and in particular, modern technology, which he understands as something different to older, pre-industrialised forms of technology. The difference, to put it crudely, is that our technological relationship with nature was once as one of steward but now is one of both master and slave. The purpose of questioning technology is therefore to break the chains of technology and be free, not in the absence of technology but through a better understanding of its essence and meaning. He suggests that there are two dominant ways of understanding technology. One is instrumental, to view it as a means to an end, while the other is to see it as human activity. He thinks they belong together.

For to posit ends and procure and utilize the means to them is a human activity. The manufacture and utilization of equipment, tools, and machines, the manufactured and used things themselves, and the needs and ends that they serve, all belong to what technology is. The whole complex of these contrivances is technology. Technology itself is a contrivance—in Latin, an instrumentum.

The current conception of technology, according to which it is a means and a human activity, can therefore be called the instrumental and anthropological definition of technology.

The instrumental view rests on a view of causality, which he breaks down into four Aristotelian causes: the material, the form, the end, and the effect. These four aspects of causality are in fact four aspects of ‘being responsible for bringing something into appearance’. They reveal that which was concealed. They are different but united by their revealing.

What has the essence of technology to do with revealing? The answer: everything. For every bringing-forth is grounded in revealing. Bringing-forth, indeed, gathers within itself the four modes of occasioning— causality—and rules them throughout. Within its domain belong end and means as well as instrumentality. Instrumentality is considered to be the fundamental characteristic of technology. If we inquire step by step into what technology, represented as means, actually is, then we shall arrive at revealing. The possibility of all productive manufacturing lies in revealing.

Technology is therefore no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing. If we give heed to this, then another whole realm for the essence of technology will open itself up to us. It is the realm of revealing, i.e., of truth.

Discussing techné, the root of ‘technology’, he observes that it encompasses both the activities and skills of the craftsman but also the arts of the mind and fine arts and concludes that techné “belongs to bringing-forth, to poiésis; it is something poetic.” Techné is also linked with the word epistémé and Heidegger states that both words “are names for knowing in the widest sense. They mean to be entirely at home in something, to understand and be expert in it.”

Such knowing provides an opening up. As an opening up it is a revealing. Aristotle, in a discussion of special importance (Nicomacheun Ethics, Bk. VI, chaps. 3 and 4), distinguishes between epistémé and techné and indeed with respect to what and how they reveal. Techné is a mode of alethéuein. It reveals whatever does not bring itself forth and does not yet lie here before us, whatever can look and turn out now one way and now another. Whoever builds a house or a ship or forges a sacrificial chalice reveals what is to be brought forth, according to the terms of the four modes of occasioning. This revealing gathers together in advance the form and the matter of ship or house, with a view to the finished thing envisaged as completed, and from this gathering determines the manner of its construction. Thus what is decisive in techné does not at all lie in making and manipulating, nor in the using of means, but rather in the revealing mentioned before. It is as revealing, and not as manufacturing, that techné is a bringing-forth.

Thus the clue to what the word techné means and to how the Greeks defined it leads us into the same context that opened itself to us when we pursued the question of what instrumentality as such in truth might be.

Technology is a mode of revealing. Technology comes to presence in the realm where revealing and unconcealment take place, where alétheia, truth, happens.

Heidegger pre-empts the accusation that this view no longer holds true for modern, machine-powered technology.  In defence, he argues that modern technology, in its mutual relationship of dependency with modern physics, is also ‘revealing’.

Modern physics, as experimental, is dependent upon technical apparatus and upon progress in the building of apparatus. The establishing of this mutual relationship between technology and physics is correct. But it remains a merely historiological establishing of facts and says nothing about that in which this mutual relationship is grounded. The decisive question still remains: Of what essence is modem technology that it thinks of putting exact science to use?

What is modern technology? It too is a revealing. Only when we allow our attention to rest on this fundamental characteristic does that which is new in modern technology show itself to us.

However, the revealing of modern technology differs from that of earlier, non-machine-powered technology, in a fundamental way. It is not a revealing, an unfolding in the sense of poiésis, “the revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.” He then leaps into some illustrative examples:

But does this not hold true for the old windmill as well? No. Its sails do indeed turn in the wind; they are left entirely to the wind’s blowing. But the windmill does not unlock energy from the air currents in order to store it.

In contrast, a tract of land is challenged in the hauling out of coal and ore. The earth now reveals itself as a coal mining district, the soil as a mineral deposit. The field that the peasant formerly cultivated and set in order appears differently than it did when to set in order still meant to take care of and maintain. The work of the peasant does not challenge the soil of the field. In sowing grain it places seed in the keeping of the forces of growth and watches over its increase. But meanwhile even the cultivation of the field has come under the grip of another kind of setting-in-order, which sets upon nature. It sets upon it in the sense of challenging it. Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry. Air is now set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium, for example; uranium is set up to yield atomic energy, which can be unleashed either for destructive or for peaceful purposes.

This setting-upon that challenges the energies of nature is an expediting, and in two ways. It expedites in that it unlocks and exposes. Yet that expediting is always itself directed from the beginning toward furthering something else, i.e., toward driving on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense. The coal that has been hauled out in some mining district has not been produced in order that it may simply be at hand somewhere or other. It is being stored; that is, it is on call, ready to deliver the sun’s warmth that is stored in it. The sun’s warmth is challenged forth for heat, which in turn is ordered to deliver steam whose pressure turns the wheels that keep a factory running.

All technology reveals, but modern technology reveals not in the unfolding poetic sense but as a challenge; it sets upon nature and expedites its energy by unlocking it.

The revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of a setting-upon, in the sense of a challenging–forth. Such challenging happens in that the energy concealed in nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is stored up, what is stored up is in turn distributed, and what is distributed is switched about ever anew. Unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about are ways of revealing. But the revealing never simply comes to an end. Neither does it run off into the indeterminate. The revealing reveals to itself its own manifoldly interlocking paths, through regulating their course. This regulating itself is, for its part, everywhere secured. Regulating and securing even become the chief characteristics of the revealing that challenges.

Once unlocked, this energy (raw or in the form of machine-powered technology) is held captive as a standing reserve. The airliner standing on the runway is a stationary object ordered to be ready for take-off. However, this apparent mastery over nature’s energy is no such thing because we are challenged, ordered, to act this way. We, in fact, like the airliner on the runway, are situated in the ‘standing reserve’ as human resources.

The forester who measures the felled timber in the woods and who to all appearances walks the forest path in the same way his grandfather did is today ordered by the industry that produces commercial woods, whether he knows it or not. He is made subordinate to the orderability of cellulose, which for its part is challenged forth by the need for paper, which is then delivered to newspapers and illustrated magazines. The latter, in their turn, set public opinion to swallowing what is printed, so that a set configuration of opinion becomes available on demand. Yet precisely because man is challenged more originally than are the energies of nature, i.e., into the process of ordering, he never is transformed into mere standing-reserve. Since man drives technology forward, he takes part in ordering as a way of revealing. 2)I wonder what Marx would have to say about this. It sounds to me like Heidegger is referring to the imperative of capitalist laws of motion. cf. Ellen Meiksins Wood

In this way, we are challenged by modern technology to approach nature “as an object of research” to  reveal or “order the real as standing reserve”. Heidegger refers to this as enframing. Enframing is the essence of modern technology.

Enframing means the gathering together of the setting-upon that sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the actual, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve. Enframing means the way of revealing that holds sway in the essence of modern technology and that is itself nothing technological. On the other hand, all those things that are so familiar to us and are standard parts of assembly, such as rods, pistons, and chassis, belong to the technological. The assembly itself, however, together with the aforementioned stockparts, fall within the sphere of technological activity. Such activity always merely responds to the challenge of enframing, but it never comprises enframing itself or brings it about.

There then follows a couple of pages which reflect on the relationship between physics and modern technology. As a 17th c. precursor to 18th c. modern technology, physics is a theory which sets up nature in a way that orders it in a coherent, self-serving manner. It is not experimental because “it applies apparatus to the questioning of nature.” The physical theory of nature is the herald of modern technology, which conceals the essence of modern technology. Technology then, in its essence as enframing, precedes physics.

Modern physics… is challenged forth by the rule of enframing, which demands that nature be orderable as standing-reserve. Hence physics, in its retreat from the kind of representation that turns only to objects, which has been the sole standard until recently, will never be able to renounce this one thing: that nature report itself in some way or other that is identifiable through calculation and that it remain orderable as a system of information. This system is then determined by a causality that has changed once again. Causality now displays neither the character of the occasioning that brings forth nor the nature of the causa efficiens, let alone that of the causa formalis. It seems as though causality is shrinking into a reporting—a reporting challenged forth—of standing-reserves that must be guaranteed either simultaneously or in sequence… Because the essence of modern technology lies in enframing, modern technology must employ exact physical science. Through its so doing the deceptive appearance arises that modern technology is applied physical science. This illusion can maintain itself precisely insofar as neither the essential provenance of modern science nor indeed the essence of modern technology is adequately sought in our questioning.

Heidegger’s use of language (or rather the way it is expressed in English translation) can be difficult at times. In the remaining few pages he discusses what enframing actually is, building upon the idea that as the essence of technology, it is therefore that which reveals the real through ordering as standing reserve. As discussed above, we humans are challenged forth (compelled) by enframing to reveal the real in a seemingly deterministic way (Heidegger refers to this as destining) that holds complete sway over us. However, technology is not our fate, we are not necessarily compelled along an unaltered and inevitable course because “enframing belongs within the destining of revealing” and destining is “an open space” where man can “listen and hear” to that which is revealed. Freedom is in “intimate kinship” with the revealed as “all revealing comes out of the open, goes into the open, and brings into the open… Freedom is the realm of the destining that at any given time starts a revealing upon its way.” Freedom then, is to be found in the essence of technology but we are continually caused to believe that the brink of possibility is that which is revealed in the ordering processes of modern technology to create the standing reserve, deriving all our standards from this basis. Freedom is continually blocked by this process of the destining of revealing which obscures the real. This is a danger.

It is a danger because when the real is concealed it may be misinterpreted. When something is unconcealed it no longer concerns us as an object but, rather, as standing reserve “and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing reserve”. When the object is lost to the standing reserve, we ourselves become standing reserve and see everything as our construct, seeing not objects everywhere but the illusion and delusion of encountering ourselves everywhere.

In truth, however, precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence. Man stands so decisively in subservience to on the challenging-forth of enframing that he does not grasp enframing as a claim, that he fails to see himself as the one spoken to, and hence also fails in every way to hear in what respect he ek-sists, in terms of his essence, in a realm where he is addressed, so that he can never encounter only himself.

But enframing does not simply endanger man in his relationship to himself and to everything that is. As a destining, it banishes man into the kind of revealing that is an ordering. Where this ordering holds sway, it drives out every other possibility of revealing. Above all, enframing conceals that revealing which, in the sense of poiésis, lets what presences come forth into appearance.

Enframing blocks the truth and destining compels us to create order out of nature which we believe is the truth. This is the danger, not of technology, which itself cannot be dangerous, but rather of the destining of revealing itself. Enframing, the essence of technology then, is the danger.

The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has already afflicted man in his essence. The rule of enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.

Drawing on Holderlin, Heidegger believes that technology’s essence contains both the danger (enframing) and its saving power. How is this so? Enframing is not the essence of technology in the sense of a genus, “enframing is a way of revealing having the character of destining, namely, the way that challenges forth.” Recall that the revealing that “brings forth” (poiésis) is also a way with the character of destining. By contrast, enframing blocks poiésis.

Thus enframing, as a destining of revealing, is indeed the essence of technology, but never in the sense of genus and essentia. If we pay heed to this, something astounding strikes us: it is technology itself that makes the demand on us to think in another way what is usually understood by “essence.”

As we have seen, the essence of modern technology for Heidegger is enframing and as its essence, enframing is that which endures. Enframing is “a destining that gathers together into the revealing that challenges forth.” But Heidegger also states that “only what is granted endures” and “challenging is anything but a granting.” So how can the challenging of modern technology be resolved into that which is granted and endures? What is the saving power “that let’s man see and enter into the highest dignity of his essence”? The answer is to recall that enframing need not only challenge forth but can also bring forth the revealing of nature.” The essential unfolding of technology harbors in itself what we least suspect, the possible rise of the saving power.”

Heidegger argues that “everything depends” on our ability and willingness to cast a critical eye over “the essential unfolding” of technology. That instead of “gaping” at technology, we try to catch sight of what unfolds in technology. Instead of falling for the “irresistibility of ordering”, we opt for the “restraint of the saving power”, always aware of the danger of technology which threatens us with the possibility that its revealing, saving power might be “consumed in ordering  and that everything will present itself only in the unconcealedness of standing reserve.”

So long as we represent technology as an instrument, we remain transfixed in the will to master it. We press on past the essence of technology… The essence of technology is ambiguous. Such ambiguity points to the mystery of all revealing, i.e., of truth.

Now at the end of his essay, we can see there are two possible direction one might take with technology:

On the one hand, enframing challenges forth into the frenziedness of ordering that blocks every view into the propriative event of revealing and so radically endangers the relation to the essence of truth.

On the other hand, enframing propriates for its part in the granting that lets man endure—as yet inexperienced, but perhaps more experienced in the future—that he may be. the one who is needed and used for the safekeeping of the essence of truth. Thus the rising of the saving power appears.

Heidegger concludes that technology once shared the root techné with a broader practice of poiésis. Technology (techné) brought forth and revealed that which was true and beautiful through the poetics of the fine arts. It is in the realm of the arts, therefore, that we can practice the questioning of technology in the hope of revealing the truth, which modern technology habitually conceals through the order it imposes on the world.

Because the essence of technology is nothing technological, essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it.

Such a realm is art. But certainly only if reflection upon art, for its part, does not shut its eyes to the constellation of truth, concerning which we are questioning.

References   [ + ]

1. I found this online version slightly easier to read than the version in the book of the same name.
2. I wonder what Marx would have to say about this. It sounds to me like Heidegger is referring to the imperative of capitalist laws of motion. cf. Ellen Meiksins Wood

Reading The Cybernetic Hypothesis

Tiqqun was a French journal that published two issues in 1999 and 2001. 1) ; The authors wrote as an editorial collective of seven people in the first edition and went uncredited in the second edition. More recently, one member of the original collective, Fulvia Carnevale, has said that:

I would like to say that Tiqqun is not an author, first of all. Tiqqun was a space for experimentation. It was an attempt at bridging the gap between theory and a number of practices and certain ways of “being together”. It was something that existed for a certain time and that then stopped because the people working at it weren’t happy with the relation between theory and practice and that certain people had decided that Tiqqun 3 would be a movie. 2)See the interview with Agamben. A video of the Q&A which followed his talk has since been removed but an English transcript of both the talk and Q&A can be found here:

This space for experimentation amounted to to 450 pages over three years, producing several substantial texts such as Bloom Theory, Introduction to Civil War, and The Cybernetic Hypothesis. 3)Semiotext(e) (MIT Press) has recently published Introduction to Civil War and How is it to be done? in a single volume. A growing number of translations can be found on the web. The best source for these in English is:

Published in Tiqqun 2, The Cybernetic Hypothesis is forty-three pages long (in the original journal) and divided into eleven sections. Each section begins with one or two quotes which are then critiqued in order to further our understanding of the hypothesis and develop the author’s response. The author(s) write in the first person singular. They quote from a range of sources but do not offer precise references.

What follows are my notes on the text. A much more extended version of my notes is available here. Neither of these are a review of the text, simply a summary of my reading of each section.

Section one provides historical references for the objectives of cybernetics and argues that as a political capitalist project it has supplanted liberalism as both a paradigm and technique of government that aims to dissolve human subjectivity into a rationalised and stable (i.e. inoffensive) totality through the automated capture of increasingly transparent flows of information and communication. The authors understand this subjugation of subjectivity as an offensive, anti-human act of war which must be counteracted.

Section two establishes cybernetics as the theoretical and technological outcome and continuation of a state of war, in which stability and control are its objectives. Developing with the emergence of post-war information and communication theory and corresponding innovation in computer software and hardware, intelligence is abstracted from the human population as generalised representations that are retained and communicated back to individuals in a commodified form. This feedback loop is understood as a ‘system’ and later as a naturalised ‘network’ which, drawing on the 19th century thermodynamic law of entropy, is at continual risk of degradation and must therefore be reinforced by the development of cybernetics itself.

Section three ends with a useful summary of its own:

The Internet simultaneously permits one to know consumer preferences and to condition them with advertising. On another level, all information regarding the behaviour of economic agents circulates in the form of headings managed by financial markets. Each actor in capitalist valorization is a real-time back-up of quasi-permanent feedback loops. On the real markets, as on the virtual markets, each transaction now gives rise to a circulation of information concerning the subjects and objects of the exchange that goes beyond simply fixing the price, which has become a secondary aspect. On the one hand, people have realized the importance of information as a factor in production distinct from labour and capital and playing a decisive role in “growth” in the form of knowledge, technical innovation, and distributed capacities. On the other, the sector specializing in the production of information has not ceased to increase in size. In light of its reciprocal reinforcement of these two tendencies, today’s capitalism should be called the information economy. Information has become wealth to be extracted and accumulated, transforming capitalism into a simple auxiliary of cybernetics. The relationship between capitalism and cybernetics has inverted over the course of the century: whereas after the 1929 crisis, PEOPLE built a system of information concerning economic activity in order to serve the needs of regulation – this was the objective of all planning – for the economy after the 1973 crisis, the social self-regulation process came to be based on the valorization of information.

Section four focuses on the role of information to both terrorise and control people. The sphere of circulation of commodities/information is increasingly seen as a source of profit and as this circulation accelerated with the development of mass transportation and communication, so the risk of disruption to the flow of commodities/information became more of a threat. In cybernetics, total transparency is seen as a means of control yet because the removal of risk is never absolutely possible, citizens are understood as both presenting a risk to the system and a means to regulate that risk through self-control. Control is therefore socialised and now defines the real-time information society. An awareness of risk brings with it an awareness of the vulnerability of a system that is dependent on an accelerated circulation/flow of information. Time/duration is a weakness and disruption to time is signalled as an opportunity to halt the flow and therefore the project of cybernetic capitalism.

Section five is a critique of socialism and the ecology movement proposing how these two movements have been subsumed by cybernetic capitalism. The popular forms of protest over the last 30 years have only strengthened the cybernetic objectives of social interdependence, transparency and management. This marked the second period of cybernetics which has sought to devolve the responsibility of regulation through surveillance through the affirmation of ‘citizenship’ and ‘democracy’.

Section six offers a critique of the Marxist response to cybernetic capitalism and finds it contaminated and complicit in its economism, humanism and totalising view of the world.

Section seven offers a brief critique of critical theory and finds it to be an ineffectual performance cloistered in the mythology of the Word and secretly fascinated by the cybernetic hypothesis. The section introduces insinuation as a mode of interference and tactic for overcoming the controlled circulation of communication. The author(s) indicate that the remaining sections of The Cybernetic Hypothesis are an attempt to undo the world that cybernetics constructs.

Section eight discusses panic, noise, invisibility and desire as categories of revolutionary force against the cybernetic framework. Panic is irrational behaviour that represents absolute risk to the system; noise is a distortion of behaviour in the system, neither desired behaviour nor the anticipated real behaviour. These invisible discrepancies are small variations (‘non-conforming acts’) that take place within the system and are amplified and intensified by desire. An individual acting alone has no influence, but their desire can produce an ecstatic politics which is made visible in a lifestyle which is, quite literally, attractive, with the potential to produce whole territories of revolt.

Section nine elaborates on invisibility as the preferred mode of diffuse guerilla action. A method of small selective strikes on the lines of communication followed by strategic withdrawal are preferred over large blows to institutions. Despite the distributed nature of the Internet, territorial interests have produced a conceivably vulnerable network reliant on a relatively small number of main trunks. Both individual spontaneity and the organisational abilities of institutions are valued but both should remain distant from cybernetic power and adopt a wandering course of unpredictability.

Section ten develops the author(s) tactics for countering cybernetic capitalism, through the application of slowness, disruptive rhythms, and the possibilities that arise from encounters with others. The cybernetic system is a politics of rhythm which thrives on speed for stability (as was discussed in section four) and a range of predictability. The guerilla strategy is therefore one of dissonant tempos, improvisation and ‘wobbly’ rhythmic action.

Section eleven is a final attempt to define the key categories of struggle against the domination of cybernetic capitalism. These can be summarily listed as slowness, invisibility, fog, haze, interference, encounters, zones of opacity, noise, panic, rhythm/reverberation/amplification/momentum and finally, autonomy. Combined, these constitute an offensive practice against the requirement and expectation of cybernetics for transparency/clarity, predictability, and speed in terms of the information communicated and regulation of its feedbacks. The author(s) do not reject the cybernetic system outright but rather see the possibility for autonomous zones of opacity from which the invisible revolt can reverberate outwards and lead to a collapse of the cybernetic hypothesis and the rise of communism.

Originally published in French in Tiqqun II (2001). Translated into English 2010

References   [ + ]

1. ;
2. See the interview with Agamben. A video of the Q&A which followed his talk has since been removed but an English transcript of both the talk and Q&A can be found here:
3. Semiotext(e) (MIT Press) has recently published Introduction to Civil War and How is it to be done? in a single volume. A growing number of translations can be found on the web. The best source for these in English is: