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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing About Academic Labour

This essay calls for a return to the labour theory of Marx, or rather to Marx’s negative critique of labour and its “pivotal” role in comprehending the political economy of higher education. It argues that a critique of capitalism and its apparent complexity must be undertaken through an immanent critique of labour, rather than from the standpoint of labour as has been the case in both Marxist and non-Marxist traditions of labour studies. Through a review of exemplar articles on ‘academic labour’, the essay draws attention to the fundamental importance of employing Marx’s method of abstraction so as to understand the concrete social world of capital. Finally, it proposes that the future of academic labour is to be found in its negation and overcoming rather than in efforts to resist the ‘logic’ of valorisation.

Download the full article from Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labour.

This article has been translated into Polish and published in a special edition of PRAKTYKA TEORETYCZNA 4(18)/2015. This special issue focuses on ‘Labour and Production in Higher Education’ with special attention given to Student as Producer. It includes work by Sarah Amsler, Richard Hall, Krystian Szadkowski and Mike Neary.

Wages for Students!

“We are fed up with working for free

We demand real money now for the schoolwork we do.

We must force capital, which profits from our work, to pay for our schoolwork. Only then can we stop depending on financial aid, our parents, working second and third jobs or working during summer vacations for our existence. We already earn a wage; now we must be paid for it. Only in this way can we seize more power to use in our dealings with capital.

We can do a lot with the money. First, we will have to work less as the “need to work” additional jobs disappears. Second, we will immediately enjoy a higher standard of living since we will have more to spend when we take time off from schoolwork. Third, we will raise the average wage in the entire area affected by the presence of us low-cost workers.

By taking time off from schoolwork to demand wages for students, we think and act against the work we are doing. it also puts us in a better position to get the money.

No more unpaid schoolwork!

The Wages for Students Students”

Read the full pamphlet on Zerowork (download PDF scan of 1975 original). See also here and for historical context, Federici (1974) Wages Against Housework.

Open Co-operatives (2)

In the first part of my notes on ‘open co-operatives’, I focused on Michel Bauwen’s most recent statement, Why We Need a New Kind of Open Cooperatives for the P2P Age. There, he outlines four recommendations for the creation of open co-ops, which are a new synthesis of values and practices of the global P2P, FLOSS and Free Culture movement, with the values, principles and practices of the historic, global co-operative movement. The recommendations are:

  1. That coops need to be statutorily (internally) oriented towards the common good
  2. That coops need to have governance models including all stakeholders
  3. That coops need to actively co-produce the creation of immaterial and material commons
  4. That coops need to be organized socially and politically on a global basis, even as they produce locally.

Earlier, I made notes on the first two points, suggesting that the co-operative movement indeed already addresses these in quite substantial ways. What appears to be especially novel about Michel’s proposal for ‘open co-ops’ is that the principle and practice of ‘common ownership’ is extended to the product of the co-operative as well as the means of production. This is novel from the point of view of traditional co-operatives, but taken for granted in the world of P2P, FLOSS and Free Culture. However, what that movement lacks is the innovation and experience in developing complementary organisational forms, which the co-operative movement has been working on for over 150 years.

What is also important to note, is that Bauwens regards all of this work on open co-ops, not as the ultimate objective, but as necessarily transitional to the practice of communism, as coined by Marx: ‘From each according to their abilities to each according to their needs’.

Here, I want to focus on Michel’s third recommendation, having just read a number of other articles that discuss the Peer Production ‘Copyfarleft’ License (PPL). More specifically, I consider part (a) of his third recommendation which is intended to address the creation of a self-sustaining immaterial commons. Part (b) of his recommendation, which is the creation of a self-sustaining material commons is not directly addressed here, although many of my comments will be relevant. I will return to this and his fourth recommendation at a later date.

*

The Peer Production License (PPL) was created by Dmytri Kleiner. It is based on the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA v3.0 license and includes an additional restriction (point three below) to those that already exist in the CC license:

  1. Share-alike/Copyleft: This requires the consumer of the product to license their derivative product under the same terms as the originating product, such that the benefits of each creative work licensed under these terms perpetuate. This resists outright ‘free-loading’ and strategically develops a commons of social property, which is based on a general, indirect degree of reciprocity. This social property is not ‘public’ in terms of regulated by the state, nor individually or collectively ‘private’ as in joint-stock. It is created through what Pedersen (2010) neatly refers to as ‘reciprocity in perpetuity’.
  2. Non-commercial: The work cannot be used for commercial advantage or private monetary gain i.e. profit. This resists the exploitation of the commons for money, or put another way, it resists the expansion of the value-form of commodities into the money form while still being trapped in the value-form.
  3. Co-operative: This is an exception to the non-commercial clause above which states that commercial use can be made of the product by democratic, worker-owned organisations that distribute their profits among themselves e.g. co-operatives. This is to allow for and promote the use of the common property of co-operatives in their mutual interest of building a commons. It applies to the immaterial, non-rivalrous knowledge  products of the co-operatives. This is the novel addition to the original CC-BY-NC-SA license. It permits a restricted type of commercial use among co-ops while resisting the dissolution of the commons into the anti-social private sphere.
  4. The producers of the work should be acknowledged: This resists the dissolution of the property into the public domain and ensures that the originating producer(s) are respectfully credited for their contribution. It also adds a dimension of transparency and traceability as to the provenance of each contribution. This is important for a system, such as that proposed by Bauwens and Kleiner, which is based on any kind of reciprocity and equivalence, including that of money.

The PPL license has been discussed in four recent articles:

Miguel Said Vieira & Primavera De Filippi (2014) Between Copyleft and Copyfarleft: Advanced reciprocity for the commons.

Michel Bauwens, Vasilis Kostakis (2014) From the Communism of Capital to Capital for the Commons: Towards an Open Co-operativism.

Vieira and De Filippi provide a good discussion of what the PPL offers, the reasoning behind the license, and its advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage, they say, is that the PPL offers a license that sits between standard copyleft (e.g. GPL) licenses and non-commercial copyleft licenses (e.g. CC-BY-NC-SA). 1 Kleiner’s intention in restricting commercial use of the commons property is to restrict its use to those organisations that do not exploit labour (in the technical sense of paying labour less than its actual value) and thereby resist the alienation of labour.

Kleiner is said to have referred (I can’t find a direct reference) to this as the ‘non-alienation clause’. The assumption here is that democratically controlled, worker-owned co-operatives overcome the alienation of wage labour because, in effect, they act as their own capitalist and do not draw a wage as such, but rather they draw from the surplus they collectively make. I have discussed this at length with reference to Jossa’s work on Labour Managed Firms (here, here). Most recently, Jossa has conceded that in fact such firms do not fully overcome alienation, a point that was clear to me from engaging with his earlier work, where I wrote:

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

The problem with Jossa and with the idea of a ‘non-alienation clause’ is that it overlooks or misunderstands the nature of alienation. As I have said before, “What Jossa seems to overlook is that ‘value’, not the wage, mediates labour in a capitalist society.”

In a Preface to Capital, Marx referred to the commodity as the “economic cell-form” from which everything else in capitalist society can and should be examined. According to Marx, in Capital Vol. 1, Ch. 1, a commodity is characterised by having a use-value and an exchange-value. The use-value is the product or service’s utility and the exchange value is its value, or rather the exchange value is the the realisation of the commodity’s value. The value of a commodity is expressed in its exchange value.

Marx said that an understanding of political economy (i.e. capitalism) “pivots” on the understanding of the dual character of labour, as it is expressed in the dual character of the commodity. That is, the use value of the commodity is an expression of the concrete character of labour and the exchange value (value) is the expression of the abstract character of labour. By ‘abstract labour’, Marx was defining the way that value is determined not by the amount of concrete labour that someone put into the production of the commodity, measured by clock time (this was the common view of political economists at that time), but by the homogeneous mass of labour as it exists at any one time as a social whole. This qualitative and commensurable character of labour is quantified, not by clock time, but by ‘socially necessary labour time’, or

“the labour time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society.” (Marx, Capital)

Marx’s discovery was not simply that labour is useful and can be exchanged like any other commodity, but that its character is “expressed” or “contained” in the form of other commodities. What is expressed is that labour in capitalism takes on the form of being both concrete, physiological labour and at the same time abstract, social, homogeneous labour. It is the abstract character of labour that is the source of social wealth in capitalism (i.e. value) and points to a commensurable way of measuring the value of commodities and therefore the wealth of capitalist societies.

What Jossa and perhaps other advocates of worker co-operatives overlook is that in order to understand the social form of wealth in capitalist societies (i.e. ‘value’ ultimately expressed in money), we have to, according to Marx at least, understand the true nature of the commodity as an expression of a particular, historically specific, form of labour which is socially divided by the imposition of private property and other coercive forces; it becomes mediated by value in the form of money, which allows access to that property. Labour should not simply be understood as concrete, physiological labour, but simultaneously as the abstract, social mass of global labour that now extends to most societies across the world. Likewise, the measure of the value of that labour and therefore the commodities it produces, is also characterised by a dynamic, globally determined measure of the social labour time necessary to produce all commodities. In practice, this means that if a person can produce a widget in the Far East in less time than a person in Europe, that efficiency will find its way into determining, through competitive markets, the overall productivity of those widgets and impact on the value of the commodity and therefore the value of the labour in Europe. In this way, as Marx argued, increasing productivity decreases the value of a commodity and pushes down the value and social necessity of labour, rendering an increasing population superfluous to capital’s needs (i.e. under- and unemployment).

As I have argued before,

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

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

On account of all this, I agree with Meretz‘s excellent critique of copyfarleft, where he concludes:

“Despite all his radical rhetoric, Dmytri Kleiner doesn’t want to touch the basic principles of commodity production. All he wants is a slightly more equal distribution of wealth based on commodity production. This has been the goal of many people, a lot of people have tried to realise it, and despite so many defeats many people still want it. They will not succeed. It is simply not sufficient to achieve workers’ control over the means of production if they go on being used in the same mode of operating. Production is not a neutral issue, seemingly adaptable for different purposes at will, but the production by separate private labour is necessarily commodity production, where social mediation only occurs post facto through the comparison of values – with all the consequences of this – from the market to ecological disaster.”

This is a common critique by Marxists of the potential of worker co-operatives. Effectively, they ‘degenerate’ into capitalist firms (see Egan, 1990) because they are forced to participate in a competitive marketplace alongside traditional capitalist firms. They are accused of focusing too much on the democratic ownership and control of property, while ignoring the fundamental character of the capitalist mode of production. I understand this and agree that it is almost certain to happen. However, does this mean that democratically controlled producer co-operatives are in fact a dead end? I don’t think so and from Bauwen’s text on open co-operatives and other articles I have read, his insistence that P2P and open co-ops are to be understood as ‘transitional’ forms of production and property ownership, suggests that he is also aware of this, but at the same time is concerned with what can be done in today’s historical, material conditions.

We can see this in a more recent exchange between Meretz and Bauwens regarding the Peer Production License. Meretz published a critique of the PPL, in which I think he rightly critiques the notion of ‘reciprocity’ as required by the PPL and Copyfarleft. 2 As I noted above, the value of a commodity is expressed or realised by its exchange value. Marx discussed at length what is meant by exchange value and what is occurring in the act of exchange in capitalism. He referred to this as the ‘value form‘ and with great dialectical rigour, began by discussing it in its ‘simple form’ and then ‘expanded form’, then ‘general form’ and final as the ‘money form’. In effect, he begins by discussing value most abstractly and gradually develops his theory to find its expression in the concrete form of money.

At the heart of the value form (i.e. that which socially characterises value in capitalism), is the idea of equivalence achieved through the exchange of commodities. The value of one or more commodities enters into a relationship with one or more other commodities, whereby each is simultaneously relative and equivalent to the other. The value of one commodity is achieved in its confrontation with another. Meretz understand all of this well and rightly argues that the PPL limits reciprocity while the GPL promotes it. The term ‘reciprocity’ is used by Bauwens and Kostakis to describe a fair exchange between people. Therefore, what makes an exchange under the PPL license reciprocal requires a qualitative understanding of the contribution being made and a quantitative measure of that contribution. This is exactly what, according to Marx, capitalism has achieved in its organising principle of wage labour and private property mediated through the money form. Abstract labour is the qualitative ‘substance’, measured by socially necessary labour time. For Bauwens and Kostakis, it appears that among open co-operatives, this form of exchange is replaced by a more direct form of negotiation:

“the PPL/Commons-based reciprocity licenses would indeed limit the non-reciprocity for for-profit entities, however they would not demand equivalent exchange but only some form of negotiated reciprocity.”

In their paper on the PPL, Vieira and De Filippi attempt to tackle this issue by proposing an alternative or complementary license which better defines the reciprocal contribution required, suggesting that “only those who contribute to the commons are entitled to commercially exploit them – but only to a similar or equivalent extent (i.e. they can take only as much as they have given to the commons).” They then go on to propose a non-circulating “peer-currency” system of tokens. They argue that their additional reciprocity clause “introduces an expectation of ‘advance reciprocity’… because every entity has to contribute beforehand in order to obtain tokens and thus make commercial uses of the commons.” The result of this, they suggest, is that “large corporations such as Google or Facebook will only be able to use their work to the extent that they contribute back to the commons – either by producing and contributing for the commons in order to obtain credits, or by paying the proper licensing fees.”

To be honest, I don’t know what to make of this. On the face of it, it seems absurd to me since we already have a token system intended to ensure equivalent reciprocity: Money. I also can’t see how it changes anything in terms of the large corporations benefiting more from the work of smaller producers since a large corporation can afford to make their like-for-like contribution quite easily, whereas it would be very difficult for a small worker co-op to match the contribution of the large corporation – reciprocity extends both ways. Anyway, putting that aside, a system of non-circulating tokens is something that Marx suggested might be necessary in the transition towards full communism, as he recognised that during this transitional state, people would still expect to receive an equal amount back in return for their labour:

“Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.

Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labor, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption.

But as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form”

When Bauwens and Kostakis state, “A commons-based reciprocity license would simply ask for reciprocity”, I think they are underestimating the difficulty of achieving this in practice. Not only that, but the GPL and other Copyleft licenses have taken us beyond the point of requiring reciprocity. Further on in their article, critically discussing the GPL, they refer to

“what anthropologists call ‘general reciprocity’, that is at the collective level, a minimum of contributions is needed to sustain the system. Nevertheless there is absolutely no requirement for direct reciprocity. The reciprocity is between the individual and the system as a whole.”

My view, and I think it is Meretz’s too, is that this is actually a very positive thing, which from an understanding of the value-form, moves us away from the imposition of equivalence on all aspects of social life. Yet, against the GPL, Bauwens and Kostakis are arguing for a more “direct” form of reciprocity which would be enforced by the PPL.

As I said in my first set of notes on open co-ops: Reciprocity is the logic of (imposed) scarcity. Non-reciprocity is the logic of abundance. Although Meretz goes on to define a distinction between ‘positive reciprocity’ and ‘negative reciprocity’, I don’t think this is helpful. The aim should be to altogether overcome the compulsion of reciprocity, which is the logic of poverty, protected by law.

“In modern society, where the conditions of life are private property, needs are separated from capacities. A state of abundance would alter this. Needs and capacities would come together, and close off the space between them. In modern society, this space is filled by the dense structures of private property-political order and the law of labour: in a state of abundance they would have no place. If the productive capacities already deployed were oriented towards need, necessary labour would be reduced to a minimum, so that nothing would stand between men and what they need to live. Money and the law of labour would lose their force, and, as its foundations crumbled, the political state would wither away. The state of abundance is not a Utopian vision but the real possibility of conditions already in existence.” (Kay and Mott 1982)

Yet, again I am reminded of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, where he recognises that the material premises have to be in place and apparent to the majority of individuals in society in order for the logic of the former social conditions to be abandoned:

“Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.”

The GPL is a license that recognises the premise of abundance in the immaterial social realm, where the notion of “each to each” can exist in practice. Although still an expression of liberal capitalist jurisdiction, it is an expedient means towards developing and demonstrating the premises for communism. My view is that for the immaterial commons, the GPL remains adequate to the task of growing that commons – criticisms of it being non-reciprocal are confusing reciprocity with equivalence, which is one of the reasons we should be against reciprocity altogether.

The ‘communistic’ nature of the GPL has been discussed at length by Jakob Rigi, who also bases his argument on the theoretical and methodological foundations developed by Marx. In his response, he states:

“I commend Bauwens & Kostakis for their activist approach and their good intentions to develop an alternative to capitalism and establish an ethical economy. Unfortunately, however, their approach not only fails to achieve these goals, but perpetuates capitalism.” (2014: 393)

He argues that Bauwen and Kostakis’ desire (as expressed in the PPL) to retain the essential categories of capital (e.g. surplus value, profit) only perpetuates capitalism. Rigi goes into great detail in his discussion about how co-operatives are trapped by the logic of capitalism and must at some point degenerate, die, or overcome the necessity of commodity production. On this, he agrees with Meretz:

“To sum up the cooperative is implicated in the capitalist mechanism of exploitation either as an exploited or exploiting party in the both processes of the formation of values and that of the production prices of the commodities they produce. A single commodity is a social interface (relation) in a double sense. On the one hand as a value bearing entity it is an interface between all labour that produces that type of commodity. And on the other, as a price bearing entity it is an interface between all constituent elements of the total social capital, i.e. the capitalist economy as a whole. No magic of cooperation can change these realities. The only way for cooperatives to break with the logic of capital is to break with the market, i.e. not to produce commodities.” (Rigi 2014: 395)

Rigi provides a good discussion on the parasitic nature of rent, arguing that knowledge products, e.g. software, literally have no value, and that along with interest on capital, rent should be part of the total abolition of capitalism. He agrees that “the idea of peer-producing cooperatives as a platform for launching peer-production is appealing. But these cooperatives’ main direction should be to work against the market and money and break with them.” (397)

In principle, I agree, but Rigi’s critique remains adhered to a traditional view of worker struggle against capital and overlooks the implications of his own explanation of the labour theory of value. He begins his critique of Meretz’s rejoinder to Bauwens and Kostakis by stating:

“I agree with most of Meretz’s criticism of Bauwens & Kostakis. However, I find two problems in his rejoinder. His distinction between exchange and reciprocity is not helpful. Second, he does not grasp the GPL’s communist nature and its revolutionary-transformative historical potentials..” (398)

Likewise, I agree with most of Meretz’s criticisms, too, but as with Meretz, a problem remains with Rigi’s understanding of reciprocity in terms of capitalist exchange, too.

“Of course, Meretz is correct that the GPL as a license is a contract, a juridical form, a social rule and not immediately reciprocity. But this contract stipulates a universal reciprocity, and in this sense it is communistic. Communism is nothing but universal reciprocity… Communism is nothing but realization of individual potentials through voluntary participation in social production and making the product available to all members of society regardless of their contributions.” (398-9)

To develop his argument around reciprocity and exchange, Rigi draws on the work of Marshall Sahlins (1974). He states that Sahlins’ study of ‘Stone Age Economics’ distinguished between three different types of reciprocity: “negative (commodity exchange), balanced (gift exchange) and general reciprocity.” Bauwens and Kostakis regard the GPL license as promoting ‘general reciprocity’, where “there is no logic of equivalence, you give without expecting to receive something back directly.” (Rigi 2014: 398) Rigi argues that the GPL does not fit any of Sahlins’ forms of reciprocity because,

“the giver always receives back something larger (the whole im- proved software = the sum of all contributions) of what s/he gives (her/his contribution). On the other hand the receiver is not obliged to contribute, i.e. s/he receives the sum of all contributions without being obliged to contribute as long as s/he does not publish the derivative. We may call this a communist form of reciprocity.” (398)

Just as Meretz wants to distinguish between positive and negative forms of reciprocity, Rigi is also unable to abandon the idea and creates another sub-category of reciprocity, too. As I stated above, it is my view that, according to Marx’s labour theory of value, communism is the overcoming and negation of the conditions that require reciprocity (i.e. scarcity and poverty) and that “each according to each” describes a social world where no concern for reciprocity remains.

Both Meretz and Rigi understand the centrality of the mode of production in capitalism, over and above the mode of distribution. Both authors understand Marx’s labour theory of value, too. Yet both critics of the PPL and open co-operatives, fall back on a critique of exchange and distribution, rather than fully engaging in a critique of production.

Why is it so difficult for us to abandon the idea of reciprocity in a future society of abundance? Sahlins’ ‘negative’, ‘balanced’ and ‘general’ forms of reciprocity are each conditioned by specific, historical modes of production and their subsequent social customs. It is impossible to determine the precise nature of communist, or post-capitalist society but according to Marx, we can say that ‘post-capitalism’ points to a society where value has been abolished as the form of social wealth.

What does it mean to abolish value? It means that the ‘value form’ (the exchange of relative and equivalent use-values) no longer mediates our social relations as it does today and this means that our social relations are no longer determined by the ‘commodity form’ (the necessity to produce use-values primarily for exchange-value). And because the commodity form is nothing more than the expression of the dual character of labour (concrete and abstract labour), we find that the abolition of value is in fact the abolition of labour, or rather capitalism’s dual form of labour. Since it is absurd to suggest that any future society would abolish the physiological requirement of usefully expending energy, the abolition of labour is not the abolition of concrete useful labour, but the abolition of the abstract, social, homogeneous form of labour brought about due to the division of labour and its corresponding institution of private property. With this uniquely capitalist qualitative form of labour abolished, so would its measure (and therefore the measure of value) of ‘socially necessary labour time’ be overcome, too. In moving towards such a society, labour, according to Marx, would transition gradually from being indirect as it is now, mediated by exchange, to being ‘direct labour’, characterised not by reciprocity, but by the custom of “each according from their ability to each according to their own.” Such a social custom is not the product of the creation of a new form of exchange, but rather a new mode of production based on freely associated concrete labour. Freedom then, is freedom from abstract labour measured by socially necessary labour time (i.e. freedom from value). That ‘freedom’ from abstract (wage) labour is currently being objectively imposed on the under and unemployed. The challenge for the open co-operative movement is to create a new, sustainable form of social wealth, built upon the general social knowledge developed through the capitalist mode of production, such that we might be fortunate enough to abandon the capitalist social factory altogether.

Elsewhere (and here), I have highlighted the importance of Peter Hudis’ recent work in understanding Marx’s views on post-capitalism. I think it is especially valuable in thinking about the issues I have discussed around ‘open co-operatives’ not least because his work recognises both the necessity of abolishing value, but also the importance of worker co-operatives as a means to achieve that aim.

Hudis, quoting Marx, notes that in the transition to post-capitalism “social relations become ‘transparent in their simplicity’ once the labourers put an end to alienated labour and the dictatorship of abstract time.”

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

Direct labour then, is a transparent process instead of the opaque process of indirect, value-creating, alienated capitalist labour. The conditions for this form of labour do not simply come about by wishing for them or even demanding them, but are the outcome of historical conditions of production, as Hudis explains:

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

Direct labour is made possible by the human development of productive forces that provide the requisite conditions of abundance so that the conditions of material and therefore social necessity are surpassed and we are no longer subordinated to the necessity of the division of labour in order to achieve such levels of productivity and abundance. Capitalism has achieved the current levels of productivity and abundance precisely through co-operation, which Marx called the the “fundamental form of the capitalist mode of production.”

“When numerous labourers work together side by side, whether in one and the same process, or in different but connected processes, they are said to co-operate, or to work in co-operation… Co-operation ever constitutes the fundamental form of the capitalist mode of production.” (Marx, Capital Vol.1, Ch. 13)

We should be mindful that ‘co-operation’ is fundamental to the capitalist mode of production in that it represents the socialisation of labour that has been divided and alienated from its product. In their earlier work, Marx and Engels explicitly argued for the abolition of the division of labour. For example:

“We have already shown above that the abolition of a state of affairs in which relations become independent of individuals, in which individuality is subservient to chance and the personal relations of individuals are subordinated to general class relations, etc.—that the abolition of this state of affairs is determined in the final analysis by the abolition of division of labour. We have also shown that the abolition of division of labour is determined by the development of intercourse and productive forces to such a degree of universality that private property and division of labour become fetters on them. We have further shown that private property can be abolished only on condition of an all-round development of individuals, precisely because the existing form of intercourse and the existing productive forces are all-embracing and only individuals that are developing in an all-round fashion can appropriate them, i.e., can turn them into free manifestations of their lives. We have shown that at the present time individuals must abolish private property, because the productive forces and forms of intercourse have developed so far that, under the domination of private property, they have become destructive forces, and because the contradiction between the classes has reached its extreme limit. Finally, we have shown that the abolition of private property and of the division of labour is itself the association of individuals on the basis created by modern productive forces and world intercourse.” (More examples here)

So, to return to my question above: Why is it that even Marxists, who have a grasp of the labour theory of value, end up arguing for new forms of distribution to supersede the existing form?

The essential work of Historian, Moishe Postone, provides an answer:

“I attempted, through a close reading of the most fundamental categories of Marx’s critique of political economy, to grasp the most basic features of capitalism – those that characterize the core of the social formation through its various historical configurations. On that basis I argued that traditional Marxism took basic features of liberal capitalism – the market and private ownership of the means of production – to be the most fundamental features of capitalism in general. Relatedly, it regarded the category of labor as the standpoint from which capitalism was criticized. Capitalism became identified with the bourgeoisie; socialism with the proletariat.

According to my interpretation, however, far from being the standpoint of the critique of capitalism, labor in capitalism constitutes the central object of Marx’s critique and is at the heart of Marx’s core categories of commodity and capital. I argued that, at the heart of the social formation is a historically specific form of social mediation constituted by labor – namely, value. This form of mediation (which is also a form of wealth) is at the same time a historically specific form of domination that can be expressed through, but is not identical with, class domination. It is abstract, without any specific locus, and is also temporally dynamic. This form of domination, which appears as external necessity, rather than as social, generates both the mode of producing in capitalism as well as its intrinsically dynamic character. It is, of course, impossible to even begin to go into the complexity of the issues involved, but several important implications are that industrial production, which historically comes into being under capitalism, does not represent the foundation of socialism, but is intrinsically capitalist; that the problem with growth in capitalism is not only that it is crisis-ridden, but that its very form of growth itself is problematic; that the existence of the bourgeois class is not the ultimate defining feature of capitalism and that state capitalism (briefly described by Marx as early as 1844) can and has existed; finally, that the proletariat is the class whose existence defines capitalism , and that the overcoming of capitalism involves the abolition, not the glorification, of proletarian labor.

Traditional Marxism had already become anachronistic in a variety of ways in the 20th century. It was unable to provide a fundamental critique of the forms of state capitalism referred to as “actually existing socialism.” Moreover, its understanding of emancipation appeared increasingly anachronistic, viewed from the constituted aspirations, needs, and motivating impulses that became expressed in the last third of 20th century by the so-called “new social movements.” Whereas traditional Marxism tended to affirm proletarian labor and, hence, the structure of labor that developed historically, as a dimension of capital’s development, the new social movements expressed a critique of that structure of labor, if at times in an underdeveloped and inchoate form. I argue that Marx’s analysis is one that points beyond the existing structure of labor.”

I realise that by this point I have departed from a direct response to Michel Bauwens’ statement on open co-operatives, but in doing so, I have begun to respond to his critics (with whom I share many views), and to the implications of Bauwen’s proposed project. Although the implications of the abolition of labour and the subsequent abolition of private property and capital itself may seem like a pipe-dream, it is also a necessity. Marx does offer a rigorous and compelling theory for why it must be undertaken and to a lesser extent how it can occur. His work was by no means complete and it requires constant re-evaluation in light of our own historical conditions, but as Postone remarks, that re-evaluation also requires an engagement with the fundamental categories of capitalism in order to grasp its basic features.

Postone argues that industrial production is intrinsic to capitalism, which suggests that post-capitalism will be characterised by a post-industrial form of production. P2P production could be, as Bauwen’s argues, a “proto-mode of production” for a future society, and producer co-operatives of freely associated labour could be its organisational form. Postone and Hudis‘ respective re-evaluations of Marx’s work, as well as others such as Kurz and Trenkle, offer compelling critiques of our existing mode of production, not from the standpoint of labour but as critiques of labour itself.

The successful creation of a post-capitalist society will require a thoroughly global perspective, rather than a retreat into localism and guild-like modes of production and it will build on the achievements of capitalism as a highly productive, though devastating historical mode of production. The latter sections of Rigi’s paper provide a sketch of what this might look like and one point is key: “These cooperatives must be revolutionary, second, they must break with the market as much as they can.” This insistence that co-operatives and its members are political activists accords with Kasmir’s study of Mondragon, the world’s largest co-operative. It’s failings as a co-operative, she argues, is because of its disconnect with working-class objectives, such that workers “do not consider the firms theirs in any meaningful way.” Kasmir (1996) argues that one of the lessons we can learn from Mondragon is that of the “importance of politics, the necessary role of organization, and the continuing value of syndicates and unions for transforming the workplace.” (199-200) Members of a worker co-operative  must regularly question how their mutual work forms a critical, social project. “If workplace democracy is to be genuine, it seems that it must be premised on activism.” (199)

In my view, the combination of  knowledge and experience from within the international P2P movement and that of the international co-operative movement, under the banner of ‘open co-operativism’ is a very positive move and Bauwens work (as well as Kleiner and others) is important for initiating this and providing us with something to respond to and collectively develop, in both theoretical and practical ways.

The Co-operative University: Labour, property and pedagogy

My paper for the conference, Governing Academic Life is available for download and I welcome comments here or via email. Thank you.

Abstract

We are witnessing an “assault” on universities (Bailey and Freedman, 2011) and the future of higher education and its institutions is being “gambled.” (McGettigan, 2013) For many years now, we have been warned that our institutions are in “ruins” (Readings, 1997). We campaign for the “public university” (Holmwood, 2011) but in the knowledge that we work for private corporations, where academic labour is increasingly subject to the regulation of performative technologies (Ball, 2003) and where the means of knowledge production is being consolidated under the control of an executive. We want the cops off our campus but lack a form of institutional governance that gives teachers and students a right to the university. (Bhandar, 2013)

Outside the university, there is an institutional form that attempts to address issues of ownership and control over the means of production and constitute a radical form of democracy among those involved. Worker co-operatives are a form of ‘producer co- operative’ constituted on the values of autonomy, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In most cases the assets (the ‘means of production’) of the co-operative are held under ‘common ownership’, a social form of property that goes beyond the distinction between private and public.

I begin this paper by discussing the recent work of academics and activists to identify the advantages and issues relating to co-operative forms of higher education. I then focus in particular on the ‘worker co-operative’ organisational form and discuss its applicability and suitability to the governance of and practices within higher educational institutions. Finally, I align the values and principles of worker co-ops with the critical pedagogic theory of ‘Student as Producer’.

Co-operative labour attacks the groundwork of capital

Below is a section from Marx, written around the same time that Capital Volume 1 was published (1866/7). It is a useful reminder of Marx’s own activism at a time when he was also writing the most remarkable theoretical work, too.

It is awkwardly titled: ‘The Different Questions‘, written for the International Workingmen’s Association, as ‘Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council’. It’s a short document that touches on a number of things: The importance of gathering reports and statistics about the international struggle between labour and capital; limiting (reducing) working hours; ensuring that child labour (aged 9yrs onwards) is combined with education; the role of Trade Unions, which should be to act “against the system of wage slavery itself” rather than get caught up in local issues; taxation (“No modification of the form of taxation can produce any important change in the relations of labour and capital.”); the army; and co-operative labour:

“Co-operative labour

It is the business of the International Working Men’s Association to combine and generalise the spontaneous movements of the working classes, but not to dictate or impose any doctrinary system whatever. The Congress should, therefore, proclaim no special system of co-operation, but limit itself to the enunciation of a few general principles.

(a) We acknowledge the co-operative 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.

(b) Restricted, however, to the dwarfish forms into which individual wages slaves can elaborate it by their private efforts, the co-operative system will never transform capitalist society. to convert social production into one large and harmonious system of free and co-operative labour, general social changes are wanted, changes of the general conditions of society, never to be realised save by the transfer of the organised forces of society, viz., the state power, from capitalists and landlords to the producers themselves.

(c) 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.

(d) We recommend to all co-operative societies to convert one part of their joint income into a fund for propagating their principles by example as well as by precept, in other words, by promoting the establishment by teaching and preaching.

(e) In order to prevent co-operative societies from degenerating into ordinary middle-class joint stock companies (societes par actions), all workmen employed, whether shareholders or not, ought to share alike. As a mere temporary expedient, we are willing to allow shareholders a low rate of interest.”

On the ‘abolition of labour’

First, from Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution, pp.292-3

“The labor process itself is the life of the proletariat. Abolition of the negative ordering of labor, alienated labor as Marx terms it, is hence at the same time the abolition of the proletariat.

The abolition of the proletariat also amounts to the abolition of labor as such. Marx makes this an express formulation when he speaks of the achievement of revolution. Classes are to be abolished ‘by the abolition of private property and of labor itself.’ Elsewhere, Marx says the same thing: ‘The communistic revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity, does away with labor.’ And again, ‘the question is not the liberation but the abolition of labor.’ The question is not the liberation of labor because labor has already been made ‘free’; free labor is the achievement of capitalist society. Communism can cure the ‘ills’ of the bourgeois and the distress of the proletarian only ‘by removing their cause, namely, “labor.”

These amazing formulations in Marx’s earliest writings all contain the Hegelian term Aufhebung, so that abolition also carries the meaning that a content is restored to its true form. Marx, however, envisioned the future mode of labor to be so different from the prevailing one that he hesitated to use the same term ‘labor’ to designate alike the material process of capitalist and of communist society. He uses the term ‘labor’ to mean what capitalism actually understands by it in the last analysis, that activity which creates surplus value in commodity production, or, which ‘produces capital.’ Other kinds of activity are not ‘productive labor’ and hence are not labor in the proper sense. Labor thus means that free and universal development is denied the individual who labors, and it is clear that in this state of affairs the liberation of the individual is at once the negation of labor.

An ‘association of free individuals’ to Marx is a society wherein the material process of production no longer determines the entire pattern of human life. Marx’s idea of a rational society implies an order in which it is not the universality of labor but the universal satisfaction of all individual potentialities that constitutes the principle of social organization. He contemplates a society that gives to each not according to his work but his needs. Mankind becomes free only when the material perpetuation of life is a function of the abilities and happiness of associated individuals.”

Marcuse is mainly drawing from Marx and Engel’s The German Ideology, where they discuss in detail the relationship between the division of labour, private property and its necessary overcoming as the historical task of the proletariat. For example:

“In all previous revolutions the mode of activity always remained unchanged and it was only a question of a different distribution of this activity, a new distribution of labour to other persons, whilst the communist revolution is directed against the hitherto existing mode of activity, does away with labour, and abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves, because it is carried through by the class which no longer counts as a class in society, which is not recognised as a class, and is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc., within present society;” (MECW Vol. 5 p. 52)

“The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; in other respects they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors. On the other hand, the class in its turn assumes an independent existence as against the individuals, so that the latter find their conditions of life predetermined, and have their position in life and hence their personal development assigned to them by their class, thus becoming subsumed under it. This is the same phenomenon as the subjection of the separate individuals to the division of labour and can only be removed by the abolition of private property and of labour itself. We have already indicated several times that this subsuming of individuals under the class brings with it their subjection to all kinds of ideas, etc.” (ibid, 77)

“The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relations) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only within the community has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; hence personal freedom becomes possible only within the community. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the state, etc., personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed under the conditions of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community in which individuals have up till now combined always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and since it was the combination of one class over against another, it was at the same time for the oppressed class not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In the real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.” (ibid 77-78)

“Thus, while the fugitive serfs only wished to have full scope to develop and assert those conditions of existence which were already there, and hence, in the end, only arrived at free labour, the proletarians, if they are to assert themselves as individuals, have to abolish the hitherto prevailing condition of their existence (which has, moreover, been that of all society up to then), namely, labour. Thus they find themselves directly opposed to the form in which, hitherto, the individuals, of which society consists, have given themselves collective expression, that is, the state; in order, therefore, to assert themselves as individuals, they must overthrow the state.” (ibid 80)

“Only at this [post-revolutionary] stage does self-activity coincide with material life, which corresponds to the development of individuals into complete individuals and the casting-off of all natural limitations. The transformation of labour into self-activity corresponds to the transformation of the previously limited intercourse into the intercourse of individuals as such. With the appropriation of the total productive forces by the united individuals, private property comes to an end. Whilst previously in history a particular condition always appeared as accidental, now the isolation of individuals and each person’s particular way of gaining his livelihood have them- selves become accidental.” (ibid 88)

“The modern state, the rule of the bourgeoisie, is based on freedom of labour. The idea that along with freedom of religion, state, thought, etc., and hence “occasionally” “also” “perhaps” with freedom of labour, not I become free, but only one of my enslavers—this idea was borrowed by Saint Max himself, many times, though in a very distorted form, from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. Freedom of labour is free competition of the workers among themselves. Saint Max is very unfortunate in political economy as in all other spheres. Labour is free in all civilised countries; it is not a matter of freeing labour but of abolishing it.” (ibid 205)

“It follows from what was said above against Feuerbach that previous revolutions within the framework of division of labour were bound to lead to new political institutions; it likewise follows that the communist revolution, which removes the division of labour, ultimately abolishes political institutions ; and, finally, it follows also that the communist revolution will be guided not by the “social institutions of inventive socially-gifted persons”, but by the productive forces.” (ibid 380)

“We have already shown above that the abolition of a state of affairs in which relations become independent of individuals, in which individuality is subservient to chance and the personal relations of individuals are subordinated to general class relations, etc.—that the abolition of this state of affairs is determined in the final analysis by the abolition of division of labour. We have also shown that the abolition of division of labour is determined by the development of intercourse and productive forces to such a degree of universality that private property and division of labour become fetters on them. We have further shown that private property can be abolished only on condition of an all-round development of individuals, precisely because the existing form of intercourse and the existing productive forces are all-embracing and only individuals that are developing in an all-round fashion can appropriate them, i.e., can turn them into free manifestations of their lives. We have shown that at the present time individuals must abolish private property, because the productive forces and forms of intercourse have developed so far that, under the domination of private property, they have become destructive forces, and because the contradiction between the classes has reached its extreme limit. Finally, we have shown that the abolition of private property and of the division of labour is itself the association of individuals on the basis created by modern productive forces and world intercourse.” (ibid 438-9)

From an interview with Moishe Postone, whose basic argument has been reformulated in his numerous publications, and is nicely encapsulated here:

“My reformulation of the central categories of Marx’s critique of political economy was influenced in part by the massive global historical transformations since 1973. Retrospectively, from the vantage point of the early 21st century, we can see more clearly that capitalism has existed in a number of different historical configurations – for example, 19th century liberal capitalism, 20th century state-centric “Fordist” capitalism and, now, neo-liberal global capitalism. This indicates that capitalism’s history cannot be adequately grasped as a linear development. It also, more importantly, indicates very strongly that capitalism’s most basic features cannot be identified completely with any of its more specific historical configurations.

I attempted, through a close reading of the most fundamental categories of Marx’s critique of political economy, to grasp the most basic features of capitalism – those that characterize the core of the social formation through its various historical configurations. On that basis I argued that traditional Marxism took basic features of liberal capitalism – the market and private ownership of the means of production – to be the most fundamental features of capitalism in general. Relatedly, it regarded the category of labor as the standpoint from which capitalism was criticized. Capitalism became identified with the bourgeoisie; socialism with the proletariat.

According to my interpretation, however, far from being the standpoint of the critique of capitalism, labor in capitalism constitutes the central object of Marx’s critique and is at the heart of Marx’s core categories of commodity and capital. I argued that, at the heart of the social formation is a historically specific form of social mediation constituted by labor – namely, value. This form of mediation (which is also a form of wealth) is at the same time a historically specific form of domination that can be expressed through, but is not identical with, class domination. It is abstract, without any specific locus, and is also temporally dynamic. This form of domination, which appears as external necessity, rather than as social, generates both the mode of producing in capitalism as well as its intrinsically dynamic character. It is, of course, impossible to even begin to go into the complexity of the issues involved, but several important implications are that industrial production, which historically comes into being under capitalism, does not represent the foundation of socialism, but is intrinsically capitalist; that the problem with growth in capitalism is not only that it is crisis-ridden, but that its very form of growth itself is problematic; that the existence of the bourgeois class is not the ultimate defining feature of capitalism and that state capitalism (briefly described by Marx as early as 1844) can and has existed; finally, that the proletariat is the class whose existence defines capitalism , and that the overcoming of capitalism involves the abolition, not the glorification, of proletarian labor.

Traditional Marxism had already become anachronistic in a variety of ways in the 20th century. It was unable to provide a fundamental critique of the forms of state capitalism referred to as “actually existing socialism.” Moreover, its understanding of emancipation appeared increasingly anachronistic, viewed from the constituted aspirations, needs, and motivating impulses that became expressed in the last third of 20th century by the so-called “new social movements.” Whereas traditional Marxism tended to affirm proletarian labor and, hence, the structure of labor that developed historically, as a dimension of capital’s development, the new social movements expressed a critique of that structure of labor, if at times in an underdeveloped and inchoate form. I argue that Marx’s analysis is one that points beyond the existing structure of labor.”

The realm of freedom

“…the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite.” (Marx, Capital Vol.3)

Digital labour, academic labour and Karl Marx

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

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

Fuchs’ book opens with:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also: digital labour” (p. 352)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forces and relations of production

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Value and the transparency of direct labour

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

A definition of value

First, he highlights a definition of value by Marx:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here, I am reminded of Bonefeld, quoting Marx:

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

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

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

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

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

What is ‘direct labour’?

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

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

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

Marx's "general formula of capital"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He quotes Raya Dunayevskaya:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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