Student as Producer (7)

See an introduction to this series of notes here.

7. Neary, Mike (2013) Student as Producer: a pedagogy for the avant-garde; or, how to revolutionary teachers teach? [v2] Paper presented at Walter Benjamin, Pedagogy and the Politics of Youth conference, London. [unpublished]

In the 2010 article of the same title, the avant-garde Marxism of Benjamin and Vgotsky is referred to as an “antidote to the dogmatic assumptions of traditional Marxism, as well as the psychologism and the positivism of empirical social science, both of which dominate current research into higher education.” (Neary 2010) This later 2013 ‘v2’ conference paper is an attempt to critique the ‘productivism’ which characterises traditional Marxism and from which even Benjamin and Vygotsky did not escape. Yet key to the work of Benjamin and Vygotsky and subsequently Neary is the transformation of the student into a radical subject, one who understands their central place and purpose in the process of knowledge production. In undertaking this, Neary concludes that

“an important aspect of the fabrication/construction of the radical subject lies in the reappropriation of ‘general social knowledge’: or, the recovery of ‘the idea of the University’, as a radically new form of social institution grounded in an historical and materialist pedagogy which can provide the basis for a revolutionary form of teaching.” (Neary 2013: 2)

He introduces Student as Producer as a project that works on a number of different levels:

  1. A model for curriculum development
  2. A framework for while institutional change
  3. The reinvention of the ‘idea of the university’ as a radical political project.

Outwardly, the project “appears quite mundane”, as “it involves embedding research and research-like teaching across all aspects of the undergraduate curriculum, so that students become part of the academic culture and practice of the institution.” (Neary 2013: 3)

As we have seen from earlier papers, the purpose of Student as Producer extends beyond the routine processes of university life. It is not confrontational but rather, a subversive project, a “negative critique” of higher education that exists within the context of a number of constraints:

  1. The labour contract
  2. Management structures
  3. Government regulation (QAA protocols) around student engagement
  4. External social, political and economic crises

Neary draws attention to the work of Benjamin, providing much more insight into the formulation of the original ideas behind Student as Producer. I will not reproduce the passages here, but needless to say, The Life of Students and Author as Producer remain key texts for a deep appreciation of Student as Producer, and although it would be going over old ground here, this 2013 conference paper is the clearest expression yet of the relevance of Benjamin to our current moment.

What is new to this paper is Neary’s critique of Benjamin and Vygotsky’s ‘productivism’. Writing the paper for a Benjamin conference, Neary reviews the work of other Benjamin scholars and concludes that while it can be

“rich and revealing… it tends to lack the avant-garde Marxist spirit that informs this crucial period of Benjamin’s work: with a tendency for taking on the melancholy and pessimistic characteristics for which Benjamin is renowned.” (Neary 2013: 14)

The latter half of the paper is devoted to an engagement with ‘avant-garde Marxists’ (“by which I mean Marxist scholarship that seeks to get beyond Marx through Marx”).

The work of Moishe Postone is introduced and highlighted for the way in which the concept of abstraction (i.e. non-empirical reality), rather than alienation, lies at the centre of his interpretation of Marx:

“This focus on the non-empirical aspect of Marx’s theory demonstrates the the violence of abstraction, as a real (im)material process of social mediation out of which emerge the repressive structures and institutions of capitalist modernity.” (Neary 2013: 16)

Postone undertakes a sustained critique of what he calls the “productivist paradigm” of “traditional Marxism”. By this he means the dominant version of Marxism that has affirmed labour (i.e the proletariat/working class) as the revolutionary subject. Postone’s critique is against this paradigm, arguing for a critique of labour in capitalism. Neary states that,

“he does this by a reconstruction of capitalist forms, including value, abstract labour and capital itself, to reveal them as the outcome of a very determinate set of social relations, grounded in the commodity form. These capitalist forms include the apparently independent structures through which capitalist modernity is regulated: money and the state. His conclusion is that post- capitalist communist society is not the realisation of labour, but its historical abolition/negation.” (Neary 2013: 16)

Postone does not have much to say about Benjamin, but Neary connects the work of both writers through Benjamin’s friend, Georg Lukacs, who Postone engages with at length in much of his work. The critical point that Neary draws out is that through Lukacs’ influence, Benjamin succumbs to the tendency of traditional Marxism to reify and fetishise the proletariat. Despite their advances on orthodox Marxism, even avant-garde Marxists of the early 20th century like Benjamin and Lukacs, saw revolution “in terms of class relations structured by market economy and private ownership of the means of production.” (Postone 2003: 82)

“Relations of domination are understood primarily in terms of class domination and exploitation. Within this general framework, capitalism is characterized by a growing structural contradiction between that society’s basic social relations (interpreted as private property and the market) and the forces of production (interpreted as the industrial mode of producing).

The unfolding of this contradiction gives rise to the possibility of a new form of society, understood in terms of collective ownership of the means of production and economic planning in an industrialized context – that is, in terms of a just and consciously regulated mode of distribution adequate to industrial production. The latter is understood as a technical process that, while used by capitalists for their particularistic ends, is intrinsically independent of capitalism; it could be used for the benefit of all members of society.” (Postone 2003: 82)

The error of this, argues Postone, is that it offers no explanation for the problems faced by Socialist planners of the 20th century and is forever “in danger of reinventing another form of labour-producing society in less mediated forms: more immediate, violent and terrorist.” (Neary 2013: 18)

Benjamin’s work in The Life of Students and Author as Producer is concerned with the process of production and the realisation of historical subjectivity through the consumer assuming the creative role of producer. Drawing his Marxism largely from his friend Lukacs, Benjamin, too, remains stuck in the productivist paradigm.

Postone argues that the subject of the capitalist mode of production is capital itself, the self-valorisation of value; leading to a series of “quasi-independent” processes which subsume all of social life. “Therefore, it is not that the proletariat must be realised; but, rather, that the capital relation in total must be abolished.” (Neary 2013: 19) Neary examines what was at the centre of Marx’s work and subsequently developed by Lukacs and Postone: the commodity-form. Despite the commodity-form usually being characterised as use-value and exchange-value (i.e. value), Neary states that for Postone, what is key to understanding and overcoming the commodity-form is “the immanent nature of the value relation within which use value and exchange value are integrated. Or, to put it another way: abstract labour is the substance of value which must exist in a concrete form as a use value.” (Neary 2013: 19)

Abstract labour exists as a “real abstraction”; that is, a “quasi-independent” abstract determinate force which has real, historical and material outcomes. The ‘logic’ of capital is a totalising logic whereby labour as the substance of value, takes on abstract forms that reduce humanity to a resource for capital, rather than the project itself.  Neary argues that,

“In capitalism human labour is essential for the valorisation process; however, in the process to increase productivity and avoid labour conflict, workers are expelled from work with their knowledge and capacity increasingly automated; this gives rise to intensification of work, unemployment, poverty and technological development; and forms of resistance, including the real possibility of a society of abundance rather than the logic of scarcity on which capitalism is based. Postone argues that the way in which work is organised is the logic of other quasi-independent structures that dominate and oppress workers, e.g., the Capitalist State.” (Neary 2013: 19)

The recurrent (i.e. permanent) contradiction and crisis of capitalism generates the possibility for the radical subject to emerge, “not as some intrinsic capacity that is inherent within the proletariat, but as a dynamic negative aspect of the capital relation.” (Neary 2013: 19)

“In a society where people have been controlled by the logic of production (Postone 1993: 284), it is likely that a new human emancipation will be a world that is not dominated by production, but a new form of human sociability with a new logic of social wealth. This will be political but the organisational/institutional forms have yet to be decided. Humanity can recover itself through different form of social wealth based on a different concept of usefulness/[uselessness] not defined within the capital relation (362).” (Neary 2013: 19)

The exact nature of  this “different form of social wealth” is unknown but likely to be discovered in the “‘latent potential’ (364) of the use value dimension, no longer constrained and shaped by the value dimension…’ not in a utopia of labour, but ‘disposable time’: non-working time not dominated by the logic of work (leisure) but through a communist concept of wealth and sociability (the social individual).” (Neary 2013: 20)

In light of this, Neary argues that the university can be reconsidered

“not as an autonomous reified institution, but as form of the social relations of capitalist production, whose real nature has emerged out of the crisis ridden and contradictory organisational principle on which it is based: the commodity-form. Using Postone, the University can be seen as a quasi-independent structure that dominates academic labour and students through the way in which it exists as a factory for the commodification of knowledge. The domination of this quasi-independent structure endures only to the extent that ‘the latent potential’ of the use value relation can be contained, to prevent commodified knowledge being re- functioned as accumulated general social knowledge appropriated by the academic labour and students who have produced it.” (Neary 2013: 25)

Neary points to an article I have written which attempts to show how the university has indeed become a quasi-independent structure gradually subsumed during the 19th and 20th centuries under the logic of capitalist valorisation; a complex expression of the capital relation in the form of the ‘industrial-military-academic complex’. Yet within and out of this context, the contradictions of the academy produce the opportunity for the production of knowledge in a non-alienated form; knowledge which ‘escapes’ the valorisation process of the academy and carries with it intrinsic use-value for the production of a commons.

Following his discussion of Postone, Neary focuses on the work of John Holloway who, like Postone, attempts to “undermine the productivist reading of Marx, while maintaining the centrality of labour as the organising principle of capitalist society. This is done by taking the value/capital relation rather than the relationship between classes as the starting point.” (Neary 2013: 20-21)

Whereas Neary draws on Postone to understand capital as an ‘abstract determinate logic’, he draws on Holloway’s “critical reinterpretation of the law of value… as a social theory of everything”. (Neary 2013: 21) Both writers, argues Neary, are similar in their negative conception of the commodity-form as expressing the “intrinsic, immanent, contradictory and antagonistic relation between use and exchange value” (ibid) With this understanding of the commodity-form, which Marx referred to as the basic ‘cell-form’ of capitalist society, Neary points to Holloway’s focus on the necessity and potential for struggle amidst the contradictions and antagonisms of social life. Whereas Postone identifies the problem through theory alone, Holloway provides a practical way forward, or as Neary states:

“In order to find an attempt to connect revolutionary theory with revolutionary practice through a reading of avant-garde Marxism we need to look elsewhere. [i.e. Holloway]” (Neary 2013: 20)

For Holloway, the working-class (i.e. the creative capacity of human labour to produce use-values) “exists as negation of capital… in the form of being denied” (i.e. as abstract labour quantified as exchange value) (ibid 21-22). While he shares much of Postone’s emphasis on the real presence and force of abstraction in capitalist society as well as his anti-productivist/anti-labour critical standpoint, Holloway asserts the negative (i.e. positive), destructive (i.e. creative) ‘logic’ that is also intrinsic in the “uncontrollable and uncontainable alien force that extends beyond the act of economic exchange to all aspects of social life”. (Neary 2013: 23)

In conclusion, Neary argues that

“Holloway and Postone offer powerful accounts of Marx’s revolutionary theory against the productivist paradigm. Writing on the edge of the dialectic, each has a tendency to privilege one side or the other: with Holloway focussing on the concrete aspect of ‘doing’ and Postone on the power and violence of abstraction. What neither of them can do, is resolve or overcome the contradiction in their writing, because this is not only a theoretical problem, it is always and everywhere intensely practical.” (Neary 2013: 24)

The final section of this conference paper reflects on this “intensely practical” problem.

“Student as Producer feels like an impossible project. Almost everything about the current situation makes it impossible, but it is that very impossibility that makes it so necessary. And even in the face of impossibility it feels like much has been achieved. More than could have been imagined. Notably, the fact that the title for an English University’s teaching and learning strategy is a ripped off slogan from a 20th century Marxist feels like something of a triumph.” (Neary 2013: 25)

Neary goes on to discuss Student as Producer in terms of a “series of techniques”: “Re-engineering the process of production”; the creation of “real networks and forms of association”; the “recovery of a moral and ethical principles as academic principles, and linking them to the bureaucratic processes”; and attempting to “astonish academics, students and administrators through a revelation of the radical history of the university.” He argues that we must “recognise, with a teacherly attitude, that all of these devices are not merely technical instruments but are derived out of a peculiar social, material and historical process which must be theorised.” (Neary 2013: 25) Out of this peculiar, contradictory, antagonistic context, Neary argues that other institutional forms will emerge as a result of struggle that are themselves likely to express the negation of the commodity-form.  Just as for Marx, capital contains the seed of its overcoming, so the institutional form of the modern university as an expression of capital also contains the revolutionary potential  of accumulated knowledge which resists and exceeds the current institutional form of higher education.

“The substance which deconstructs or melts this institutional form is the creative doing of academic labour, a form of production based on the rage of academics and students against the capitalist machine; or as Holloway might put it the moment of life against the living death of capitalist production.

In these ways the university is a form of the crisis, which is part of a much wider social political and economic crisis, the outcome of which is far from certain. What happens inside of the University, including Student as Producer, depends on the outcome of this crisis. We should be in no doubt about the increasing economic and political violence that will be inflicted, is already being inflicted, as the crisis intensifies. During this time academics are being/will be forced to assess their own position and to make a choice…

This is a condition in which nothing is fixed: new revolutionary forms are already being cast, even if they might not appear revolutionary at the time.” (Neary 2013: 26-7)

The latter 2013 conference paper represents the most developed theoretical statement about Student as Producer and also reflects on the way Student as Producer has been practised both inside formal higher education and outside. since 2007. Starting out from the work of Benjamin, Neary has now found a way to go beyond the productivism implicit in ‘Student as Producer’ and the helplessness and potential dangers of hypostatising the ‘real’, the concrete, without a full, critical understanding of the “violence of abstraction”. There are a number of points that we can distil from this paper with regards to the suitability of the worker co-operative as an organisation form for a pedagogy based on Student as Producer.

  • Early avant-garde Marxists, Vygotsky and Benjamin, provide the pedagogical foundations for Student as Producer, which Neary has developed. With this paper, he argues with reference to Postone and Holloway’s work, that the ‘productivism’ of their Marxist theory should be the subject of critique in developing Student as Producer. This implies that the organisational form for Student as Producer should itself be anti-productivist or post-productivist. A worker co-operative would have to reflect on how this redefines ‘work’ and how the organisation can be constituted in a way that works towards abolishing exchange-value while asserting use-value as the form of social wealth derived from the concrete labour of its members.  It would be a worker co-operative that sought to abolish capitalist work. Jossa and Egan’s writing on Labour Managed Firms are worth returning to.
  • The organisational form need to support ways to reconnect intellectual and manual labour and theory and praxis. Learning should take place through ‘practical tasks’, i.e. research-based learning that is grounded in historical and material conditions.
  • The distinction and divide between teachers and students should be addressed through a reconfiguration of the division of labour so as to ensure that both roles contribute according to individual capacity and need in the process of knowledge production. This does not deny that there are people who can teach and people who can learn from others, but the organisational form can constitute each as ‘scholars’ (i.e. members) whose needs and capacities are each recognised as part of the knowledge production process.
  • Student as Producer is a ZPD and the organisational form should be constituted so as to protect the ZPD and create a ‘safe’ space for members to contribute creatively.
  • The organisational form should support and express a number of reflexive techniques: “Re-engineering the process of production”; the creation of “real networks and forms of association”; the “recovery of a moral and ethical principles as academic principles, and linking them to the bureaucratic processes”; and attempting to “astonish academics, students and administrators through a revelation of the radical history of the university.”
  • In his notebooks, Marx wrote that “Production, then, is also immediately consumption, consumption is also immediately production. Each is immediately its opposite.” How can we understand the relationship between production and consumption?
  • Are production and labour synonymous? We need to be clear about the nature of labour and therefore the specific nature of production. As Hudis has shown, Marx said that ‘labour’ and its products would still exists post-capitalism, but they are non-alienated, not mediated by the abstractions of labour and value. How can an understanding of ‘indirect’ vs ‘direct labour’ help us re-conceive post-capitalist labour i.e. its “latent potential”?

Student as Producer (5)

See an introduction to this series of notes here.

5. Neary, Michael (2012) Student as producer: an institution of the common? [or how to recover communist/revolutionary science]. Enhancing Learning in the Social Sciences.

This is a key paper in Neary’s theoretical development of Student as Producer. In it, he again engages with the work of the Edu-Factory collective, or rather a recent book by one of its main spokespersons, Giggi Roggero, called ‘The production of living knowledge: the crisis of the university and the transformation of labour in Europe and North America‘.  Neary also draws on Paul du Gay’s work ‘In praise of bureaucracy‘, which I have found helpful in my exploration of whether the worker co-operative form is suited to higher education. Finally, the paper also explores the history of “revolutionary science”, connecting the 19th c. work of Marx to the work of 13th c. Bishop of Lincoln and first vice-chancellor of Oxford, Robert Grosseteste.

Whereas in an earlier paper, Neary distanced himself from the liberalism of Humboldt, he begins this paper by stating that

“Student as Producer is reclaiming the progressive vision of German Idealists in the 19th century for a liberal humanist university as a site for speculative philosophy, ie a social encyclopaedia of knowledge at the level of society (Lyotard 1984). Student as Producer is grounding this ‘ideal of the university’ in the radicalised student–worker uprisings of 1968 and the ways in which this student protest has re-emerged at the beginning of the 21st century against the privatisation of university life, now packaged as the ‘student experience’ where the most predominant imperative is employability.” (Neary 2012: 2)

He argues that the recent privatisation of higher education in the UK is “nothing less than a reactionary political act of intellectual vandalism and a declaration of war against critique.” (ibid)

“The purpose of Student as Producer is not to maintain higher education as a social science fiction about the struggle over the false dichotomy between its public and private function: after all both are complementary forms of capitalist regulation (Neary 2012a). The aim of Student as Producer is to “dissolve” (Holloway 2010) or better still “detonate” (Lefebvre 1991) the social relation of capital out of which the current version of the university is derived (Neary 2012a), so as to recreate the university as a new form of social institution, what Giggi Roggero calls an “institution of the common” (Roggero 2011).” (Neary 2012: 3)

His engagement with Roggero’s work is very complementary. In particular, he regards Roggero’s chosen method of ‘militant enquiry’ or ‘co-research’ as “fundamentally constitutive, where ‘the production of knowledge is immediately the production of political subjectivity and the construction of organisation.’ (Roggero 2011: 138)”. However, he finds Roggero’s distinction between”‘the commons’ as a resource emerging out of the natural world and the idea of ‘the common’ as something that is socially constructed” problematic in the way that it separates the natural and social world. The issue is grounded in Roggero’s conception of labour as the radical subject in capitalist society.  Conceived as such, labour is reified and its activity constitutes the social process that produces ‘the common’, that is “the organization of something that did not exist beforehand, or the new composition of existing elements in a subversive social relationship” (Roggero 2011: 8).”

Neary takes issue with this conception of labour and Roggero’s separation of the natural world (‘the commons’) from the social world (‘the common’). He argues that revolutionary science is, quoting Marx, “one science”.

“This one science, or communism, does not rely on speculative or philosophical solutions, but is a scientific method of enquiry and reason based on an awareness of the historical development of humanity as the alienation from nature (Foster 2000: 114). This alienation can only be overcome through “the significance of revolutionary practical critical activity” (Marx’s theses on Feuerbach, quoted in Foster 2000: 112).” (Neary 2012: 9)

Neary ends his critique of Roggero by relating the “schism” between the natural and social world to the “schism in bourgeois science”, reflected in the schism of subject disciplines within the modern university. On this, says Neary, the “key issue issue for Student as Producer is how the natural and social sciences might be reconnected as a curriculum for practical revolutionary action.” (ibid)

In contrast, Neary draws inspiration from Paul du Gay’s work on bureaucracy in his attempt to counter the understanding of Student as Producer as a “change management project”, where students are conceived as “change agents”. (Neary 2012: 4)

“change management sets itself firmly against bureaucracy, which is characterised in the change management literature as red tape, procrastination, indecision, big government, the nanny state and a tendency towards indolence (Du Gay 2000).”

The world of change management is epitomised by Drucker’s (1993) new role model of labour as the ‘knowledge worker’ whose necessary but antagonistic form is the ‘service worker’, both educated persons divided into intellectuals and managers, respectively. Neary argues that the underlying ethic of the ‘knowledge economy’ and the university as a “knowledge factory”is that of the market and the idea that organisations have to become increasingly entrepreneurial and innovative in order to survive.

In opposition to the imperatives of “change management”, Neary explores Paul du Gay’s work on bureaucracy as “a set of protocols and processes grounded in a set of morals and ethics that are highly valued in our society” (ibid). Following the work of Max Weber, bureaucracy for du Gay is

“a site of substantive ethical domain” (Du Gay 2000: 2) and “a particular ethos … not only an ensemble of purposes and ideals within a given code of conduct but also ways and means of conducting oneself … the bureau must be assessed in its own right as a particular moral institution and the ethical attributes of the bureaucrat be viewed as the contingent and often fragile achievements of that socially organised sphere of moral existence” (Du Gay 2000: 4). In this way, the bureaucratic environment contains its very own rationality and sense of purpose (Du Gay 2000: 75).” (Neary 2012: 4-5)

With this, Neary argues that the “repurposing” of bureaucracy could lead to

“a rational, moral and ethical principle a clear intent to collectively and democratically deconstruct the role of vice-chancellors as the charismatic leaders on whose vision the future prosperity and reputation of the entrepreneurial university appears to depend (Goodall 2009).”

At Lincoln, Student as Producer,

“creates a radical framework for debates and discussion about policy and strategy for teaching and learning across the university, based on a radicalised political vernacular. Given the extent to which the language of managerialism has overwhelmed the discourse of higher education, this is no mean achievement.” (Neary 2012: 6)

As such, it is a “subversive” project based on values and ethics that “have not had to be reinvented but are conjured out of the activities of academic workers at Lincoln and elsewhere.” It is subversive because it

“starts with a negative critique of higher education based on the dysfunctionality of its core activities, teaching and research, where the priority and status given to research divides institutions, and sets staff and student against each other (Boyer 1990; Brew 2006) This negative critique forms the basis of Student as Producer’s attachment to the notion of research-engaged teaching (Jenkins and Healey 2009): re- engineering the relationship between teaching and research so that undergraduates become part of the academic project of the university. This is how subversion works, by using the language and protocols of the enterprise university against itself…

This subversive ethic and academic-valued approach is written into the bureaucratic framework for teaching and learning at the University of Lincoln, through its teaching and learning strategy, and in the documentation for staff and students that shapes the protocols and procedures for quality validation, monitoring and reporting procedures, including the Student as Producer user guide.

The problem is how to maintain subversion in a context in which student as consumer is the operational imperative among providers of higher education. Part of the answer to that question lies in constantly radicalising the practice and principles of Student as Producer to avoid recuperation” (Neary 2012: 7)

The final section of the paper represents one attempt to radicalise Student as Producer through the idea and practice of “one science”. Neary presents this by connecting the scientific method of Marx and Grosseteste through the work of Aristotle. Neary describes Grosseteste as “a key figure in the development of the method of experimental science through practical applications and as being central to the creation of the modern university (Southern 1992; McEvoy 2000).” (Neary 2012: 11) The point Neary wants to make here is that the origins of the scientific method were disruptive, subversive, and indeed revolutionary and that they were so because figures like Grosseteste and Marx did not distinguish between the natural and liberal social sciences (e.g. economics, philosophy, sociology) and each made connections between the inductive and deductive methods of Aristotle. They were fixed on the idea of “one science” which, through the power of abstract thought grounded in the real world, they aimed to discover the “substantive matter” of their respective social worlds i.e. one governed by the Divine and the other by Capital. For Grossteeste, this substantive matter was God as the “divine light” and for Marx, Neary argues, it was found in the concept of ‘capital’, which he presented as a “unifying logic for the expansion of value”. In place of Grosseteste’s metaphysics, Marx’s historical materialist method discovered capital as “the automatic subject” of human society. Through his exposition of capital, “Marx’s most important discovery is that the crisis of capital is the power of humanity reasserting itself and recovering the natural world.” (Neary 2012: 12) This is an important point that Neary picks up in a later paper where he discusses the work of John Holloway in the context of Student as Producer.

Neary ends the paper with a “research question”:

“A key point for the students and academics to consider is the extent to which revolutionary science is undermined by a scientific enterprise based not on the development of knowledge but rather the development of academic capitalism (non-revolutionary science). In order to recover the substance of communist revolutionary science, it is necessary to reinvent the ideal of the university on the principles of revolutionary science. How can we redesign the idea of the university to enhance and support this vision of revolutionary science? This is the main point and purpose of Student as Producer.” (Neary 2013: 12)

From this paper, we can draw out the following points so as to help determine the institutional form for a university, “reinvented” on the “principles of revolutionary science.”

  • It is fundamentally a political project. Political subjectivity is “the essential objective reality out of which practical, critical knowledge is derived.” The institutional form itself support (i.e. be partisan to) this political project.
  • Bureaucracy is valued as a moral and ethical process which does not exist independently of the political project but guards its constitution.
  • It exists for knowledge and against the “knowledge worker”.
  • It uses the language and protocols of the university subversively (i.e. as a way to ‘interoperate’ with the neoliberal university, the State, markets, etc.) without taking on its form.
  • It recognises that “the production of knowledge is immediately the production of subjectivity and the construction of organisation.” (Roggero 2011: 138) The institutional form is therefore constructed from the subjectivity of its members, which is formed through the co-operative, social production of knowledge.
  • It attempts to overcome labour in its capitalist form, which is a “fabrication” of the social relations of capitalist production. “Labour, as such, does not exist but is constituted only as a real abstraction.” (Neary 2012: 9) The issue for the worker co-operative is to discover a way to practice non-alientated, non-abstract labour. This is at the heart of its research project: the discovery of a new form of social being.


Peter Hudis – Alternatives to Capitalism

I have recently finished Peter Hudis’ book, ‘Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism‘. It is one of the most interesting and useful books that I’ve read in some time. Below, he discusses the topic of the book with reference to Occupy, worker co-ops and other contemporary responses to capital.

The audio significantly improves from one minute into the talk and his talk ends at 55 minutes when he takes questions.

Of particular interest to me is the outline his gives (around 36 mins in) of  what Marx deemed necessary to eliminate the conditions of alienating value production i.e. freely associated, non-alienated labour.

  1. Extend democracy into the economic sphere, into the workplace.
  2. Workers’ co-operatives. Direct ownership stake and control of the workplace.
  3. Eliminate the social division of labour between ownership and non-ownership. Workers have a direct stake in the outcome of labour.
  4. In control of the workplace, workers would make work less alienating, less harmful.
  5. Co-ordination between co-operatives is needed, nationally and internationally. Democratically elected planning authority, subject to recall.

Update 29th April 2014: Here’s another talk by Hudis:

Update 16th June 2014: Another good talk to the Workers and Punks University (discusses coops and councils from around 40min onwards)


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.

A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of Academic Labour

The following paper abstract has been accepted for the Academic Identities conference 2014. I will be co-presenting with Prof. Richard Hall (De Montfort).

In this paper we analyse ‘academic labour’ using categories developed by Marx in his critique of political economy. In doing so, we return to Marx to help understand the work of academics as productive living labour subsumed by the capitalist mode of production. In elaborating our own position, we are critical of two common approaches to the study of academic labour, especially as they emerge from inside analyses of ‘virtual labour’ or ‘digital work’ (Fuchs and Sevignani, 2013; Newfield, 2010; Roggero, 2011).

First, we are critical of efforts to define the nature of our work as ‘immaterial labour’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000; Peters and Bulut, 2011; Scholtz, 2013) and argue that this category is an unhelpful and unnecessary diversion from the analytical power of Marx’s social theory and method. The discourse around ‘immaterial labour’ raised by the Autonomist or Operaismo tradition is thought-provoking, but ultimately adds little to a critical theory of commodity production as the basis of capitalist social relations (Postone, 1993; Sohn-Rethel, 1978). In fact they tend to overstate network-centrism and its concomitant disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape our objective social reality (Robinson, 2004).

Second, we are cautious of an approach which focuses on the digital content of academic labour (Noble, 2002; Weller, 2012) to the neglect of both its form and the organising principles under which it is subsumed (Camfield, 2007). Understandably, academics have a tendency to reify their own labour such that it becomes something that they struggle for, rather than against. However, repeatedly adopting this approach can only lead to a sense of helplessness (Postone, 2006). If, rather, we focus our critique on the form and organising principles of labour, we find that it shares the same general qualities whether it is academic or not. Thus, it is revealed as commodity-producing, with both concrete and abstract forms. By remaining focused on the form of labour, rather than its content, we can only critique it rather than reify it.

This then has implications for our understanding of the relationships between academics and virtual work, the ways in which technologies are used to organise academic labour digitally, and struggles to overcome such labour. It is our approach to conceive of ‘academic labour’ in both its concrete and abstract forms and in relation to a range of techniques and technologies. The purpose of this is to unite all workers in solidarity against labour (Krisis-Group, 1999), rather than against each other in a competitive labour market.


Camfield, D. (2007) The Multitude and the Kangaroo: A Critique of Hardt and Negri’s Theory of Immaterial Labour. Historical Materialism 15: 21-52.

Fuchs, C. and Sevignani, S. (2013) What Is Digital Labour? What Is Digital Work? What’s their Difference? And Why Do These Questions Matter for Understanding Social Media?, tripleC, 11(2) 237-292.

Hardt, M. and Negri, T. (2000) Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Krisis-Group (1999) Manifesto against labour. Krisis.

Newfield, C. 2010. The structure and silence of Cognitariat. EduFactory webjournal 0: 10-26.

Noble, David F. (2002) Digital Diploma Mills. The Automation of Higher Education. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Peters, Michael A. and Bulut. E. (2011) Cognitive Capitalism, Education and Digital Labor. New York: Peter Lang.

Postone, M. (1993) Time, Labor and Social Domination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Postone, M. (2006) History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism, Public Culture, 18(1).

Robinson, W.I. (2004) A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World. Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press.

Roggero, G. (2011) The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Scholtz, T. (2013) Digital Labour. The Internet as Playground and Factory. New York: Routledge.

Sohn-Rethel, A. (1978) Intellectual and Manual Labour. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Weller, M. (2011) The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice. London: Bloomsbury.

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)Hudis (2012) appears to be a version of his PhD thesis (2011). In these notes, I refer to the page numbers of the book. 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)note the word ‘activity’ here, rather than ‘production’. It reminds me of Holloway’s attempt to escape the productivism of Marxism with his conception of ‘doing’. 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.

References   [ + ]

1. Hudis (2012) appears to be a version of his PhD thesis (2011). In these notes, I refer to the page numbers of the book.
2. note the word ‘activity’ here, rather than ‘production’. It reminds me of Holloway’s attempt to escape the productivism of Marxism with his conception of ‘doing’.