The University of Utopia

Letters from Utopia, first published in Post-16 Educator (84). Download PDF

“The state of abundance is not a Utopian vision but the real possibility of conditions already in existence.” (Kay and Mott, Political Order and the Law of Labour, 1982, 1)

What follows is a series of short letters written by a student from the University of Utopia. Although a fictional account, the letters are written with the conviction that we are actually living in a state of abundance, rather than the scarcity imposed by the market economy and that global social needs can be met by our existing capacity to co-operate with one-another rather than compete. The five letters are based on our joint research and practice of co-operative higher education which we have been undertaking since 2010. They do not reflect the breadth of the research but instead offer one imaginary account that we are hopeful for and working on. A recently completed project 1 brought together many people to produce a practical and theoretical framework for co-operative higher education, features of which we have tried to embed in the epistolary form that follows. We invite you to also read a recent paper 2 that we have written which discusses our ongoing research in more detail.

Mike Neary and Joss Winn, June 2016.

~~~

Dear Mum,

I am writing to you from Utopia. At least that’s what the first couple of weeks has felt like. Since you and Dad left me at the student housing co-op, I’ve learned a lot about what makes this university different and I’m pretty sure I made the right choice to come here. I know we read the brochures about what makes a co-operative different to other types of organisation but it’s only in the last few days that I’ve really started to get it. The university is made up of four Schools: Life, Machines, Letters and Property.  I suppose the main thing I’ve noticed is the emphasis that members of the university place on the importance of democracy and what that means in terms of my role here. Although I’m just a first-year student, it seems that first and foremost I’m a member of the university, just like my teachers. In fact, it’s not just the students and teachers, but everyone is a member with an equal say in how the place runs. At first, I wondered how the place manages to run at all, but during orientation week I got a better sense of the long history of co-ops and how they tend to be good places to live and work and learn. It can’t always be easy, but people seem proud of their co-op and the role it has in society. Although it’s quite a new university, it’s part of an international movement of people who think that ‘common ownership’ (I still don’t really know what this means but it sounds good) and democratic control of their organisations is a good thing. It’s not just the university and my house that are co-ops either: the university canteen, the local health service and even a secondary school next to the university are co-ops, too, and they all try to work together. Oh, yes, I almost forgot… My bedroom furniture was designed and made by students from the university, too! I was told that by some second-year students in my house. They seem like good people. A few of us went out the other night and got to know each other. I met a nice girl called Ellie. She went to a co-op school so she knows much more about how everything works than I do. I’m really excited about being here. Can you tell!?!?!

Lots of love to you and Dad. X

~~~

Dear Mum,

I hope you are well?  After four months, this place is starting to become less strange. More familiar.

I am made to feel like a researcher with something to offer, rather than an undergraduate student with everything to learn.  There is learning, of course, lots of it and in different situations, not only in lectures, in fact there are no lectures. Last week I was having lunch and my teacher asked me to collaborate on a project about the chemistry of cooking and the politics of food, including the cause of hunger and malnutrition.  Afterwards, when we were cleaning up the kitchen, I thought about designing a kitchen that would avoid wasting food. This ties in with another project I am working on, building a house for visitors to Utopia. I want to design a contemporary croft out of concrete. My School: Life, is holding a competition. The best house design is going to be built by the students and teachers.  This project connects my interest with concrete as a concept and as a building material. I was interviewing a visitor to Utopia to get ideas for my building. She asked me, ‘what subjects are you studying’. I said, ‘I am not studying subjects. I am studying Life.  And next year I am studying Machines’. She was incredulous, not least when I told her we didn’t have exams but produced work to be read and seen in public as acts of collaboration and generosity. I have to be honest but I find my allocated work project less interesting. It’s with the School of Property. I have no interest in law or bureaucracy. I just want to build things. My tutor asked me what laws are needed to build a new society not based on private property but a unity of purpose and social defence. I told him I would think about it. If I get time. I don’t have any time. Or space. I am knackered. The pace of work is too slow.  I don’t get to the computers until next year when I start on Machines. Writing letters is part of the pedagogy, or the science of teaching, as they call it here. One of the Schools is called Letters, which extends to the humanities and the arts.  My tutor says writing letters allows for more critical reflection which is essential for learning. I am not so sure. My handwriting is rubbish and my favourite pen burst in my pocket so my shirt has an ink stain. I told Ellie it was tie dye. She said, ‘Do you think I am stupid?’ I said, ‘No, I think you are the smartest person I have ever met’.

Lots of love to you and to Dad. x

~~~

Dear Mum,

Thanks for the money you sent me. It is very kind but I don’t really need it here. Other than to buy more soap and some chocolate and fruit and beer.

As you know I was never interested in money, but the idea of the commonwealth is different. It is based on creating a new form of social value based on human purpose in the natural world. Like people and the planet. For now, we can’t avoid life with coinage, so we all make a financial contribution to Utopia’s commonwealth.  I raised my contribution from saving some of my wages when I worked before coming to Utopia and some crowdfunding and the money you gave me.  As you know this pays for accommodation and meals as well as the teacher’s salaries.  The annual accounts are a teaching object in the classes on Property. Money is the universal form of property. The university has reserves from donations and a levy from the international co-operative movement, for whom education is a core principle. My contribution is like an investment in the life of the university and if any profits are made at the end of the year I can draw down a dividend, or leave it in the fund to accumulate. The teachers pay a contribution to the commonwealth from their wages, which mounts up like a pension fund. I can earn money by working in the university to help the teachers teach and on necessary tasks to maintain the buildings. At Utopia doing is promoted above having. I might even leave the university with money in my pocket rather than a mountain of debt.  So the Commonwealth is not just an idea but a living source of value. Part of this is experimenting with new forms of social value, like labour time banks and other sharing schemes. I told Ellie that I loved her and I wouldn’t share her with anyone. I believe in free education but not in free love. Does that make me a conservative? I want to be radical, but it is hard.

Lots of love to you and Dad x

~~~

Dear Mum,

I’m pleased that the warmer weather has arrived. I bet you and Dad are enjoying being out in the garden more. It certainly makes my job here more enjoyable as I’ve started to work in the university gardens, too. It’s a funny thing, you know. All members of the university work for it in some way, including students, but it doesn’t feel like ordinary work when it’s an organisation that you collectively own and control. Through this work, I’m getting a different view of the way things run around here, too. There are quite a lot of meetings to discuss all aspects of the University, but we usually come to decisions quite quickly (although some topics can drag on!). Rules really matter though and I’m realising that democracy needs people to be actively involved and have the right information at hand so we can make good decisions. It’s not just our internal rules that I’m learning about but also the way we have to operate within the law and how the law is reflected in forms of regulation and in our university’s administration. It’s all connected, which is why it seems important to understand law and politics and the economy as what my teacher referred to as ‘social forms’, rather than things in themselves (i.e. natural). Does that make sense?

People here are elected for a period to take the lead on things such as running the courses, overseeing money, and representing different types of members at committee meetings. It’s a big responsibility and I heard that last year, members voted to remove someone from their role because they didn’t listen to anyone! He’s gone back to teaching in the School of Property. I was in a seminar the other day where we were discussing ‘bureaucracy’ and it occurred to me that there’s plenty of it here but actually in a good way. It seems to help protect what people care about in their organisation and if someone really wants to change the way things are done, then we can discuss it and vote at the next general meeting (I think that’s how it works, or maybe there are other meetings where it gets discussed first).  Well, as you can probably tell, I’ve been here nine months and I’m still figuring it all out. Some days I learn more in a committee meeting than I do in a seminar. Sometimes the committee meetings remind me of the type of discussions that were held in the Occupy movement that we studied last term. That’s a good thing, I guess.

As I mentioned on the phone, I don’t think I’ll be home for summer. It’s been agreed that I’ll be working with one of my teachers on a photography project about concrete buildings (can’t wait!) and Ellie has got a part-time job at her old school, helping run outdoor activities for kids.

Lots of love to you and Dad x

~~~

Dear Mum,

You asked me what have I learned over the last year. I learned universities are not about teaching and learning, but producing knowledge. My teachers talk about knowledge as an object of social value: something much more than value for money. I learned to develop a critical frame of mind. Not just through my own work but in reviewing the work of others. There are no grades or marks here, but a judgement by students and teachers on whether the work is ready for the world. If it is ready, then it gets published or put on show in an exhibition or as a public installation. If not then we redraft and resubmit, pull it apart and put it back together. We are taught to see the review as part of the process of the production of knowledge rather than as an assessment. As an act of collaboration with our teachers and with each other.

All of our work involves collaboration, a sort of intellectual solidarity.  This way of working does not forget that we are at the same time individuals in a collective context. We are not all the same, and our idiosyncrasies are allowed to flourish. For example, my interest in concrete as a philosophical concept and as a construction material. Maybe I will become an architect. My favourite building style is Brutalism.

Collaboration extends to other school work like maintaining the buildings. Not out of any sense of idealism about the dignity of labour, but the more of us working together the faster it can get done, especially the more menial and mundane tasks.  This sense of solidarity extends beyond the university. Next year I am going to the University of Mondragon as part of an exchange visit, working in their Electronics factory. This will form part of my studentship in the School of Machines.

In the curricula, Machines comes after Life. Life grounds knowledge in a relationship between humanity-in-nature, beyond the human intellectual and the cognitive to include the knowingness of the non-human world. Maybe this is the most important thing that I have learned.  Letters deals with art and humanities and the importance of aesthetics. Property deals with different forms of social wealth and how they are expressed in the law and the physical environment.

I also learned about democracy and the importance of everyone having an equal say in how the university operates. Coming to a decision can take a very long time, but when we get there it feels like the right decision. The discussions are a learning process. Sometimes I feel like we have reached the right decision even if I do not agree with it, if that doesn’t sound too weird.

We are encouraged to retain our commitment to the University of Utopia when we leave. They have established a society of friends to support this long term relationship. So, in a sense, students will never leave this place, at least not in our minds and in our hearts.

And I learned about personal commitment and the way in which we can show solidarity towards each other, to the extent that we can become mirrors for each other’s individual needs. For a while Ellie had taken on that role for me, but it is too much for one person. We cried when we realised we were over, but laughed when we saw the world we had opened for each other.

Did you and Dad ever feel like this?

In Solidarity. X

~~~

 

Beyond Public and Private: A Model for Co-operative Higher Education

With Mike Neary. Part of a special issue on the future of the university.

The framework for a co-operative model of higher education proposed here offers a challenging perspective to the wide-ranging debates about the future of democratic public higher education that ‘kicked off’ in England in 2010 and around the world (Mason 2011). These debates have re-emerged with renewed intensity during the recent spate of University occupations in the Netherlands and at a number of London University Colleges. We recognise the importance of fighting to maintain free public higher education as well as defending democratic academic values within the current university system, and we want to celebrate the achievements of Rethink UoA and the ‘New University Movement’ as well as the Free Education campaign in England. At the same time we are aware of the continuing dangers of co-option, recuperation and exhaustion as negotiations for institutional reform progress through the complex labyrinth of university committee structures; as well as the ever-present threat of police violence that hangs over any academic and student protest. In this context it is important to continue with experiments in democratic decision-making in ways that constitute a genuine transfer of power from the current university leadership and management to students, academics and other forms of university labour, including cleaners, porters and catering staff.

Download the full article from Krisis: Journal for contemporary philosophy. [PDF]

The co-operative university: Labour, property and pedagogy

I begin this article by discussing the recent work of academics and activists to identify the advan- tages and issues relating to co-operative forms of higher education, and then focus on the ‘worker co-operative’ organisational form and 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 framework of ‘Student as Producer’. Throughout I employ the work of Karl Marx to theorise the role of labour and property in a ‘co-operative university’, drawing particularly on later Marxist writers who argue that Marx’s labour theory of value should be understood as a critique of labour under capitalism, rather than one developed from the standpoint of labour.

You can download this article from the journal, Power and Education.

A pre-print version of this article is available from the University of Lincoln research repository.

An earlier and expanded version of this paper given at the ‘Governing Academic Life’ conference is also available from the University of Lincoln research repository.

A Short History of Hacking: Values and principles for co-operative higher education

My keynote talk for Newcastle College’s Student as Producer conference, March 27th 2015. 

Thank you for inviting me here today to contribute to your student conference. It’s a real privilege and luxury to be able to spend the day with you and to learn about all the great work you’re doing. Last year, my friend Prof. Mike Neary spoke at your ‘Student as Producer’ conference. Mike and I have worked together and with many other colleagues on Student as Producer for a number of years now and within our own institution and elsewhere, such as Newcastle College, the core ideas of Student as Producer are interpreted in new ways and take on new forms.

Student-as-Producer

At Lincoln, since our original HEA-funded project ended, Student as Producer has developed into a substantial programme of ‘student engagement‘ led by Dan Derricott, an ex-Vice President of our Student Union. At the University of Warwick, the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning funds Student as Producer projects relating to research, collaboration or performance. At Vanderbilt University in the USA, 2014 was themed the year of Student as Producer. At the University of British Columbia in Canada, funding has been made available for the redesign of 100 courses, affecting around 34,000 student enrolments.  These are just some of the examples of Student as Producer being put into practice, expressed in words like ‘engagement’, ‘collaboration’ and ‘partnership’. I know that Newcastle College has a new ‘HE Partnership Strategy’ based on the ideas of Student as Producer. I want to introduce, or rather recover, another word that is essential to my own understanding of Student as Producer and that is: ‘co-operation’. I’ll explain what I specifically mean by this in a minute.

First though, the title of my talk today probably requires some explanation: ‘A short history of hacking: Values and principles for co-operative higher education.’ The first part of the title refers to work I did on Student as Producer during 2009-2014. The second part refers to my current work, which I see as a development of Student as Producer, while remaining true to its original principles.

What has ‘hacking’ got to do with Student as Producer? When you hear the word ‘hacking’ or ‘hack’, many of you may think of something malicious and illegal, such as ‘someone’s hacked into my Facebook account’, or ‘the News of the World has been accused of phone-hacking’.

The Tech Model Railroad Club

However, an earlier meaning of ‘hacking’ was first used in the late 1950s by teachers and students belonging to the Tech Model Railroad Club at the world renown Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Even today MIT maintains a ‘Hack Gallery‘ which records various audacious and creative pranks undertaken around campus over the decades. In 1959, ‘hack’ at MIT referred to “something done without constructive end” and, according to records kept at that time, a year later a ‘hack’ specifically referred to “an article or project without constructive end.” It was, “a term for an unconventional or unorthodox application of technology, typically deprecated for engineering reasons.” A ‘hacker’ of course, is someone who hacks, but more specifically, “a hacker avoids the standard solution.” Since the early 1960s, the terms hack, hacker and hacking have taken on a variety of related and nuanced meanings and among computer scientists, electronics enthusiasts and software developers it’s still regarded as an honorary term for someone who is clever, creative, has unusual expertise and enthusiasm for their work and are defacto members of a global community of hackers who collaborate through the Internet.

In my own work on Student as Producer at Lincoln, I originally focused on the research and development of institutional  technology with students and our recent graduates. We mainly worked on projects relating to the infrastructure of the university: things like a research data management system, web publishing systems, identification and authentication protocols and curriculum data anlaysis. Throughout these projects, I referred to our work as ‘hacking the university‘ (actually, I was never creative nor clever enough to be a hacker, but some of the students I worked with truly were). During this time, we were trying to re-think and ultimately re-engineer the fabric of the university around the idea of ‘openness’: Open technologies, open data, open ways of doing research and teaching and learning.

DevXS

In 2011, we held a national student ‘hackathon‘ where nearly 200 students worked around the clock on developing prototypes for new university services. Student as Producer formed the basis and justification for all this work and in particular, a quote from the writer Walter Benjamin, who inspired Mike Neary’s early formulation of Student as Producer:

“[For]… the author who has reflected deeply on the conditions of present day production … His work will never be merely work on products but always, at the same time, work on the means of production. In other words his products must have, over and above their character as works, an organising function.” (Benjamin 1934: 777)

Our work on the technological infrastructure of the university was an attempt to “reflect deeply on the conditions of present day production” in higher education, and “at the same time, work on the means of [knowledge] production.”

The point being, that Student as Producer is not simply about partnership, engagement, and collaboration – although it is all those things. It’s about confronting the idea of higher education and the institutional form that it takes so that as we produce new knowledge, which is what distinguishes a higher education, we reflect deeply on the means of knowledge production itself.

What I’m leading to is that, as you know, Student as Producer is much more than research-engaged teaching and learning. It is a pedagogical framework but one that is intended for rebuilding or re-engineering knowledge production itself. It’s anticipated that the institutional form reflects the pedagogic principles rather than the other way around. At Lincoln, it’s “the central pedagogical principle that informs other aspects of the University’s strategic planning” articulated currently in a major initiative to involve students in the running of the university.

This brings me to the second half of my talk where I want to look forward rather than backwards and think about how Student as Producer can be developed further.

Tools

One of the exciting and sometimes frustrating things about working with hackers is that they are always retooling. By this, I mean that they are always looking for ways to improve the tools they are working with and in doing so, the process of production itself. It reflects the fact that software developers often have the ability to author or improve the software tools that will help them develop new software products, a bit like a carpenter who can fashion a better carpentry tool so as to improve their cabinetmaking. This reflects the deep level of knowledge about the process of software production that hackers have. When they run into problems in the development process, hackers often have the knowledge required to address the problem, whether it’s an irritating bug or an inefficiency in the system. Furthermore, they often have the autonomy to make that intervention, because the tools they use are open source and can be freely modified. And because they’re open source there is a community of other hackers they can co-operate with on the problem at hand, if they themselves aren’t quite sure how to fix it.

Code Swarm
A VISUALISATION OF OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT

Knowledge, autonomy, openness, community, co-operation are all required if we are to “work on the means of [knowledge] production”.  And when we are able to genuinely work on the means of knowledge production, through the principles of openness, autonomy and co-operation, it can have a ‘recursive‘ effect on our understanding of the world around us and embolden us to desire and demand these principles in other aspects of our social lives.

The point I want to underline here is not the simple assertion that students should be recognised and included as part of the research activities of higher education – of course they should – but that if we remain true to that objective, the fabric of the institution, or the ‘means of production’, has to change too, including the way the institution is governed. Which is where I come back to the idea and practice of ‘co-operation’.

Student as Producer has always had a radically democratic agenda, valuing critique, speculative thinking, openness and a form of learning that aims to transform the social context so that students become the subjects rather than objects of history – individuals who make history and personify knowledge. Student as Producer is not simply a project to transform and improve the ‘student experience’ but aspires to a paradigm shift in how knowledge is produced.

Co-ops Work

For me, Student as Producer has always been more about how students, academics,  professional staff, cleaners, caterers – the whole college community –  can democratically and co-operatively govern their institutions. At first, I approached this through the idea and practice of ‘openness’, enabled by research and development into new institutional technologies, but at the heart of this was an attempt to intervene in the way we worked with each other. I draw inspiration for this not only from Student as Producer, which from its original articulation referred to ‘co-operation’, but also from the international co-operative movement which has its own set of values and principles. The values are those of

“self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.”

The co-operative principles are: Voluntary and Open Membership; Democratic Member Control; Member Economic Participation; Autonomy and Independence; Education, Training and Information; Co-operation among Co-operatives; and Concern for Community.

As you can see, education is one of the key principles for the international co-operative movement, but I want to draw your attention to the other principles of open membership, democratic control, autonomy, co-operation among co-operatives, and concern for community.

Co-operation or Barbarism

The choice of these values and principles has been discussed, debated and refined over the 170 year history of the international co-operative movement and last agreed in 1995. This combination of values and principles does not take a single institutional form (as you know, co-ops are multivarious in the forms they take) but like Student as Producer, I think they offer a framework for re-engineering the governance of higher education and the production of knowledge in our so-called ‘knowledge economy’, enabling teachers, students, administrators, cleaners, caterers… to democratically control our institutions.

Newcastle College should be commended for recognising the need to involve students in the governance of your institution. In your own HE Partnership Strategy you state that “meaningful partnership working is reliant upon the equal distribution of democratic power.” You argue rightly that this isn’t just achieved by listening to the so-called ‘student voice’ but by “empowering students to drive and implement change.” And “this will involve redistributing power across our HE communities up to and including HE Academic Board through engaging students in all stages of the decision making process.” My question to you is how do you intend to constitute this form of democracy. You say that you will embed it “throughout all aspects of the HE learning experience” but what constitutional form will that take and how will you hold each other to account? These are not questions unique to your own stated objectives, but are being asked all the time by people who desire democracy in their work as they do in their politics.

The question I am interested in then, is what steps might we take to reconstitute and transform our institutions into member-run, democratically controlled co-operatives? Institutions that enable us to reflect deeply on the conditions of present day knowledge production and truly put Student as Producer into practice?

Co-operation, Learning and Co-operative Values

Since 2011, academics and individuals within the co-operative movement have been discussing this question, partly inspired by the way 800 schools in the UK have recently become co-operatives. We are writing about co-operative higher education for journals and books, talking about it at conferences like this one, and thinking of ways that colleges and universities can become actual co-operatives or at least more like co-operatives. The suggestions range from converting the whole institution into a co-operative, constitutionally and legally, to running parts of the institution co-operatively, such as courses, research groups, committees and the various services that operate with and within colleges and universities. Staff and students could also be encouraged and supported to create their own co-operatives both inside and outside the university, setting up housing co-ops, food co-ops, technology co-ops, and even community-run education co-ops, joining a growing federation of student co-ops in the UK.

students coop

In the course of this process of transformation, as we learn how to practice democracy, autonomy, openness and solidarity, I expect that the ‘recursive’ effect will begin to take effect and we’ll want to assert these principles in other areas of our lives, too, demanding a similar transformation in the social world we are part of. That’s what Student as Producer is all about.

Angelus Novus
THIS STORM IS WHAT WE CALL PROGRESS

Reimagining the University

Below are my notes for a keynote talk at the Reimagining the University [pdf] conference, University of Gloucester.

Thank you for inviting me here today to contribute to what is clearly a growing desire to fundamentally rethink the idea, social purpose and institutional form of the university. This is not the first, nor will it be the last time when academics and students have come together to ‘reimagine the university’. Only two weeks ago, the Scottish unions also held a ‘Reimagining the University‘ [pdf] conference where my colleague from Lincoln, Prof. Mike Neary, was speaking.

ReimaginingtheUniversityEventFlyer copyI was told that there is a much stronger sense of resistance in Scotland to the changes they see being undemocratically imposed in England and more opportunity for dialogue between the unions, academics, students and policy-makers. We only have to look to Scotland to see that the conditions we face in England are not inevitable. That there is some kind of alternative. More so, if we look to continental Europe where recently all German universities removed their tuitions fees. Denmark, Sweden and Finland do not charge  fees either. However, my talk today is not about fees, but about something that I think is more fundamental than how money circulates in our sector.

I want to begin by looking back to an earlier conference to ‘Reimagine the University‘, organised this time by students at the University of Leeds in November 2010, shortly after the first of the recent student protests.

programme-of-events1

I was there on the third day, scheduled to talk about a new model of free, co-operative higher education called the Social Science Centre.

img_04771
The conference organisers stated that

“It is clear that the university system is bankrupt and in need of profound change, but no-one can see an alternative, a solution, a way out. We need to resist the threatened cuts and the ongoing onslaught on education – but we also need a transformation.”

The conference was both an act of resistance to the recent Browne report that indicated the rise in tuition fees, and also an act of solidary, as students and their teachers walked out of their classes and occupied a central lecture theatre. You’ll understand that the atmosphere at that time was both intense and joyful. Perhaps some of you were there. Across the country, students were occupying their universities, and by doing so were making a direct claim on the property of the institution, rather than walking away from it. They stated:

“We don’t want to defend the university, we want to transform it!”

This is something we need to consider today.  What is the relationship between resistance and reimagining? What are we resisting exactly? How can we transform the university through its re-imagination?

book-bloc02web Again, my colleague Mike Neary, who always seems to have the foresight to arrive at the scene before I do, had spoken on the previous day of the Leeds occupation about Student as Producer, a project that ran at Lincoln from 2010-2013.

I’d like to use the remainder of my time in front of you to talk about the relationship between Student as Producer, the Social Science Centre, and most recently, the idea of a co-operative university, and in doing so, to offer some ideas about different routes of resistance and transformation.

And to frame these related projects, I’d like you to think about our collective work as being ‘in, against and beyond’ the university.

Or, if you prefer, work that has as its objective, ‘conversion, dissolution and creation’.

Student-as-Producer

Student as Producer is the teaching and learning strategy for the University of Lincoln. It is a model for teaching and learning based in part on the arguments made by Walter Benjamin in his essays, ‘The Life of Students’ (1915) and ‘Author as Producer’ (1934). In The Life of Students, he writes that

“The organisation of the university has ceased to be grounded in the productivity of its students, as its founders envisaged. They thought of students as teachers and learners at the same time; as teachers because productivity implies complete autonomy, with their minds fixed on science instead of the instructors’ personality.” (Benjamin 1915: 42)

Later, in Author as Producer, he writes,

“[For]… the author who has reflected deeply on the conditions of present day production … His work will never be merely work on products but always, at the same time, work on the means of production. In other words his products must have, over and above their character as works, an organising function.” (Benjamin 1934: 777)

Student as Producer has closed the 19 year gap between these two essays, and argues that

“it is possible to apply Benjamin’s thinking to the contemporary university by applying it to the dichotomous relationship between teaching and research, as embodied in the student and the teacher… to reinvent the relationship between teacher and student, so that the student is not simply consuming knowledge that is transmitted to them but becomes actively engaged in the production of knowledge with academic content and value.” (Neary 2008: 8)

And this is what Student as Producer has aimed to do, inside the University of Lincoln, across the whole institution. Crucially, we have gone to the bureaucratic centre of the university. In every programme and module validation, academics and students are asked to consider how their work could incorporate greater collaboration between students and teachers through the principle of research-engaged teaching and learning. Furthermore, numerous grants are provided to students and staff to support real collaborative research projects outside of the classroom. Out of this climate there is now a Student Engagement team, led by Dan Derricott, a recent graduate and ex-Vice President of the Student Union. Earlier this year, the Lincoln Student Union presented Mike Neary with a lifetime membership in recognition of the work he has lead on Student as Producer.

To what extent we’ve achieved Benjamin’s, and frankly our own, revolutionary ambitions is of course questionable but its impact both inside and outside the institution is undeniable. Yet we must recognise that over time, the subversive, radical language of avant-garde Marxists such as Benjamin has itself been subverted and expressed in the more familiar language of consumption and marketisation, such that  it is now common to hear across the sector of ‘Students as Partners‘ and ‘Student as Change Agents‘.

Like all other institutions in the UK that are permitted to hold the title of ‘university’, Lincoln operates within an environment regulated by the State, which increasingly aims to financialise our institutions through coerced competition. It is no longer sufficient to conceive of our universities simply as sites of knowledge production as Benjamin might have. They are now, as Andrew McGettigan’s excellent work informs us, sites of financial speculation. When Benjamin demands that we reflect deeply on the conditions of present day production and its organising function, we must acknowledge that these conditions are fabricated out of fictitious capital, fiat money, and absurd sounding financial instruments such as the “synthetic hedge“, which refers to the use of public funding to guarantee returns to private investment.

So, I put to you that Student as Producer can be seen in terms of a large scale institutional project that has operated inside the university, grounded in social theory that is against what the university has become. It has offered a framework to students and academics for the conversion of the university into an institution grounded in a theory of co-operative knowledge production which recognises that the organising principle of wage work and private property still exists at the heart of the capitalist university, despite the instruments of fictitious finance being constantly employed to conceal the crisis that is capitalism.

edufactory-flyer

More than this, in its most subversive moments, Student as Producer has been an attempt by some of us to dissolve the university into a different institutional form based on a social, co-operative endeavour between academics and students. An endeavour which, as Vygotsky recognised, is not aimed at teaching students skills for the factory, but rather aimed at them discovering for themselves the processes of knowledge production, within which they will find their own place and meaning.

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As I mentioned earlier, I was at the Leeds Reimagine the University conference to talk about the Social Science Centre, an initiative which has developed alongside Student as Producer, but outside the university.

In November 2010, the Social Science Centre was little more than an idea that we had written up and were beginning to share with friends and colleagues. It was appropriate that the SSC had its first public outing at the Leeds conference because of the work that Paul Chatterton and Stuart Hodkinson at Leeds had done on autonomous social centres.

What's this place?Their ESRC-funded research project had revealed to us a network of inspiring autonomous social centres across the UK and Europe, which acted as hubs of resistance to the privatisation of public spaces, such as universities. We saw how these co-operatively run Centres collectively broaden and strengthen the efforts of existing social movements by providing space and resource for the practice of different forms of social relations, not based on wage work and private property but instead on mutual aid and the construction of a social commons. Modelled on the social centres, we wanted the Social Science Centre to provide a space for higher education and for developing our work on Student as Producer in ways that were impossible within a mainstream university.

With the constitution of the Social Science Centre as an autonomous co-operative in May 2011, and having no formal relationship to any university, we were able to take Student as Producer outside the walls of the university and with it reconceive higher education itself.

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And this is a distinction I want to underline, one that I think we sometimes forget:

Higher education and universities are not synonymous. Universities represent the existing, historical institutional form of higher education, but in our efforts to reimagine the university, we need to extend our work to reimagining the social form of higher education.

That is what the Social Science Centre is for. It is a laboratory for experiments in higher education. It is a model that we think could be replicated by other people. It is not and never has been an alternative to everything that the modern entrepreneurial university seems compelled to do. How could it possibly be compared to the University of Gloucester, Leeds, Lincoln, Oxford? Yet what we can say is that it does provide an alternative to individuals who desire a higher education at the equivalent level to that found inside a university if they wish, with a progressive model of teaching and learning which is reflected in our constitution that insists all members, or ‘scholars’ as we call ourselves, have an equal say in the running of the co-operative. Rather than make the distinction between academics and students, we recognise that we all have much to learn from each other.

And what exactly, I am often asked, is the Social Science Centre?

In a recent collectively authored article in Radical Philosophy, we state that:

“The Social Science Centre (SSC) organises free higher education in Lincoln and is run by its members. The SSC is a co-operative and was formally constituted in May 2011 with help from the local Co-operative Development Agency. There is no fee for learning or teaching, but most members voluntarily contribute to the Centre either financially or with their time. No one at the Centre receives a salary and all contributions are used to run the SSC. When students leave the SSC they will receive an award at higher education level. This award will be recognized and validated by the scholars who make up the SSC, as well as by our associate external members – academics around the world who act as our expert reviewers. The SSC has no formal connection with any higher education institution, but attempts to work closely with like-minded organizations in the city. We currently have twenty-five members and are actively recruiting for this year’s programmes.”

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With this in mind, I want to move to the final part of my talk about co-operative higher education and, in fact, about the idea of a ‘co-operative university’. It might help to recall an article on financialisation and higher education written by Andrew McGettigan in which he concludes:

“I am frequently asked, ‘what then should be done?’ My answer is that unless academics rouse themselves and contest the general democratic deficit from within their own institutions and unless we have more journalists taking up these themes locally and nationally, then very little can be done. We are on the cusp of something more profound than is indicated by debates around the headline fee level; institutions and the sector could make moves that will be difficult, if not impossible, to undo, whether it is negotiated independence for the elite or shedding charitable status the better to access private finance.”

The democratic deficit that McGettigan highlights is undoubtedly a key issue that any reimagining of the university must address. However, democracy itself is malleable both as a concept and in practice. What does it even mean to practice democracy here in Cheltenham or in the UK, when supranational networks of capital are being formed to effectively control national and international economic processes?

Resistance to the apparent hegemony of neo-liberalisation and the resulting financialisation of the university is not simply a matter of arousing the public through the media and pushing for changes to institutional governance structures, although both of these are necessary.

Resistance so far has largely been left to students to get on with. What seems clear from this is that the wage we receive as academics is a greater form of discipline than the debt held by students.

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I have attended a number of conferences in the last four years which in one way or another sought to answer the question: ‘what then should be done?’ and at each one of them I have been left with a sense of helplessness which I know others share, too.

I think that is because to resist the ‘synthetic hedge’ for example, is not a matter of putting it to the vote, for it is an expression of what the Historian Moishe Postone refers to as “abstract historical processes [that] can appear mysterious ‘on the ground’, beyond the ability of local actors to influence, and can generate feelings of powerlessness.” This ‘mystery’, not to be confused with the complexity of some of the financial instruments, is, Postone argues, a form of “misrecognition” related to the tendency to grasp the abstract domination of capital as something concrete, such as ‘neoliberalism’. He argues, and I am inclined to agree, that this tendency “is an expression of a deep and fundamental helplessness, conceptually as well as politically.”

I am not suggesting that resistance is futile – it can be both satisfying and in the short term, effective – but it no longer seems adequate as a conceptual or political approach to making local changes in the face of global capital.

SSC Conference PosterIn reimagining the university, I’d like to suggest that we think of ways, not of resisting but rather of overcoming our current historical context and in doing so I want to propose that in addition to democracy, a number of other values can be combined to create a sustained alternative to how we think about the organising principle of wage work and private property in higher education.

“Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.”

Co-operatives are based on the seven principles of:

1. Voluntary and Open Membership
2. Democratic Member Control
3. Member Economic Participation
4. Autonomy and Independence
5. Education, Training and Information
6. Co-operation among Co-operatives
7. Concern for Community

As with the Social Science Centre,

“a co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”

This combination of values and principles does not take a single institutional form but like Student as Producer, offers a framework for reconceiving, or reimagining, our social relations, the meaning of work and the purpose of teaching and learning. It does take real effort though, and none of this will be easy to construct unless is it formed out of a conscious act of solidarity not just among a few individuals, but within the national and international co-operative movement as a whole.

Whether there is the appetite for it, is not yet clear, although something is stirring. 1 In the last three years, there have been meetings and conferences where the idea of co-operative higher education has been discussed; and a recent report by Dan Cook and sponsored by the Co-operative College, was pivotal in framing both the interest from the College and the initial questions one might ask. These questions will no doubt be discussed again at a forthcoming conference on co-operative education, hosted by the Co-operative College.

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 15.17.30In a recent paper, I have argued that taken as a whole, efforts around co-operative higher education over the last three years can be understood in terms of the three routes I mentioned at the beginning of this talk: Conversion, dissolution, and creation.

By this I mean the wholesale conversion of existing universities to co-operatives; or the gradual and possibly subversive dissolution of university processes into co-operatively governed equivalents; or the creation of new institutional forms of co-operative higher education. The success of each should not be measured against the apparent success of existing mainstream universities, but rather on the participants’ own terms and the type of higher education they need and desire.

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At this stage, we should not privilege one route over another nor any single institutional form over another. It is too early to draw lines and there is a need for much more experimentation before the dust settles on what specific social form co-operative higher education might take. For my part, I am interested in drawing from the theory and practice of worker co-operatives, which Marx recognised as ‘attacking the groundwork’ of capitalism due to its unique configuration of worker democracy, social property and the absence of wage labour.

Co-operativism is no panacea to the abstract domination of global capital and certainly not our end goal, but rather a historically and politically constituted framework that places an emphasis on values and principles that cross the divisions of public and private, wage work and unemployment, teacher and student, teaching and learning. Whatever forms it takes, one thing is for sure: we must not end up with more of the same.

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’.

The university as a hackerspace (‘Friction’ conference)

A paper for Friction: An interdisciplinary conference on technology & resistance‘, University of Nottingham, Thursday 8th May & Friday 9th May.

In a paper published last year, I argued for a different way of understanding the emergence of hacker culture. (Winn 2013) In doing so, I outlined an account of ‘the university’ as an institution that provided the material and subsequent intellectual conditions that early hackers were drawn to and in which they worked.

The key point I tried to make was that hacking was originally a form of academic labour that emerged out of the intensification and valorisation of scientific research within the institutional context of the university. The reproduction of hacking as a form of academic labour took place over many decades as academics and their institutions shifted from an ideal of unproductive, communal science to a more productive, entrepreneurial approach to the production of knowledge.

As such, I view hacking as a peculiar, historically situated form of labour that arose out of friction in the academy: vocation vs. profession; teaching vs. research; basic vs. applied research; research vs. development; private vs. public; war vs. peace; institutional autonomy vs. state dependence; scientific communalism vs. intellectual property; individualism vs. co-operation.

A question I have for you today is whether hacking in the university is still a possibility? Can a university contain (i.e. intellectually, politically, practically) a hackerspace? Can a university be a hackerspace? If so, what does it look like? How would it work? I am trying to work through these questions at the moment with colleagues at the University of Lincoln. The name I have given to this emerging project is ‘The university as a hackerspace’ and it has grown out of an existing pedagogical and political project called ‘Student as Producer.’ 1 It is also one of four agreed areas of work in a new ‘digital education’ strategy at Lincoln. 2

More broadly, our project asks “how do we reproduce the university as a critical, social project?”

STUDENT AS PRODUCER

Student as Producer is the University of Lincoln’s teaching and learning strategy and is in part derived from the work of avant-garde Marxists like Lev Vygotsky, and Walter Benjamin, who gave a lecture in 1934 known as ‘The Author as Producer’. Benjamin was concerned with the relationship between authors and their readers and how to actively intervene in “the living context of social relations” so as to create progressive social transformation:

“[For]… the author who has reflected deeply on the conditions of present day production … His work will never be merely work on products but always, at the same time, work on the means of production. In other words his products must have, over and above their character as works, an organising function.” (Benjamin 2005: 777)

Student as Producer was also an HEA-funded project that we completed recently, led by my colleague Prof. Mike Neary, who was the Dean of Teaching and Learning from 2007-14. Last year, the QAA commended the university for Student as Producer. Mike Neary and another colleague, Sam Williams, came to talk about Student as Producer here at the University of Nottingham just a couple of weeks ago and I’m told it was very well received.

Student as Producer at Lincoln is a university-wide initiative, which aims to construct a productive and progressive pedagogical framework through a re-engineering of the relationship between research and teaching and a reappraisal of the relationship between academics and students. Research-engaged teaching and learning is now “an institutional priority at the University of Lincoln, making it the dominant paradigm for all aspects of curriculum design and delivery, and the central pedagogical principle that informs other aspects of the University’s strategic planning.” (HEA 2010)

In an early book chapter setting out the rationale for Student as Producer, Mike and I argued that:

“The idea of student as producer encourages the development of collaborative relations between student and academic for the production of knowledge. However, if this idea is to connect to the project of refashioning in fundamental ways the nature of the university, then further attention needs to be paid to the framework by which the student as producer contributes towards mass intellectuality. This requires academics and students to do more than simply redesign their curricula, but go further and redesign the organizing principle, (i.e. private property and wage labour), through which academic knowledge is currently being produced.” (Neary & Winn, 2009, 137)

Central to Student as Producer is an attempt to reconfigure the dysfunctional relationship between teaching and research in higher education and a conviction that this can be best achieved by rethinking the relationship between student and academic.

The argument for Student as Producer has been developed through a number of publications 3 which assert that students can and should be producers of their social world by being collaborators in the processes of research, teaching and learning. Student as Producer has a radically democratic agenda, valuing critique, speculative thinking, openness and a form of learning that aims to transform the social context so that students become the subjects rather than objects of history – individuals who make history and personify knowledge. Student as Producer is not simply a project to transform and improve the ‘student experience’ but aspires to a paradigm shift in how knowledge is produced, where the traditional student and teacher roles are ‘interrupted’ through close collaboration, recognizing that both teachers and students have much to learn from each other. Student as Producer aims to ensure that theory and practice are understood as praxis, what Paulo Freire referred to as a process of “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.” (Freire 2000, 51).

A critical, social and historical understanding of the university and the roles of researcher, teacher and student inform these aspirations and objectives. They draw on radical moments in the history of the university as well as looking forward to possibilities of what the university can become. I think that one such radical moment could be the “software wars” that Richard Stallman has described when he tried desperately to hold together his “commune” in the “Garden of Eden” that was the AI Lab in MIT during the late 1970s. That moment was the genesis of the Free Software movement and the creation of the GPL license, and a time when hacking formally ‘escaped’ the confines of the university. 4

Student as Producer recognizes that the higher education sector is in a state of crisis, which is reflective of a more general social crisis. At a time when the higher education sector is being privatized and students are expected to assume the role of consumer, Student as Producer aims to provide students with a more critical, more historically and socially informed, experience of university life which extends beyond their formal studies to engage with the role of the university, and therefore their own role, in society. Pedagogically, this is through the idea of ‘excess’ where students are anticipated to become more than just student-consumers during their course of research and study (Neary & Hagyard, 2010). The idea of ‘excess’ is suggestive of a state of abundance (Kay and Mott, 1982), of conditions of non-reciprocity: “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.” You will have experienced moments of such abundance and non-reciprocity in your own lives: with your lovers, your children, and in the culture of sharing on the web.

Our aim is that through this ‘pedagogy of excess’, the organising principle of university life is redressed, creating a teaching, learning and research environment which promotes the values of experimentation, openness and creativity, engenders equity at the level of academic and student labour and thereby offers an opportunity to reconstruct the student as producer and academic as collaborator. In an anticipated environment where knowledge is free (as in ‘freedom’, if not as in ‘beer’), the roles of the educator and the institution necessarily change. The educator is no longer a delivery vehicle and the institution becomes a landscape for the production and construction of a mass intellect in commons, a porous, networked space of abundance, offering an experience that is in excess of what students might find elsewhere.

In our 2009 book chapter, we specifically drew on the activities of the Free Culture movement as an exemplary model for how the disconnect between research and teaching and the work of academics and students, might be overcome and reorganized around a different conception of work and property, ideas central to the meaning of ‘openness’ or, rather, an ‘academic commons’.

LNCD IS NOT A CENTRAL DEVELOPMENT GROUP

One of the reasons I have come to think about ‘the university as a hackerspace’ is due to what I regard as a failure of my earlier work. It depends on how you regard ‘failure’ – we learned a lot, attracted lots of research funding, and the work was interesting and seemed to interest other people – but it didn’t fully have the effect on the institution that I was hoping for. Between 2009 and 2013, I ran ten grant-funded projects, each of which focused on the theme of ‘openness’ or as I prefer, the ‘academic commons’. This work was consolidated under a group that we called LNCD. LNCD is a recursive acronym and stands for ‘LNCD is Not a Central Development Group’. 5 It was intended to be an open, inclusive group run according to the principles of Student as Producer and open to students and staff from across the university.

With the LNCD group, I acknowledged that the origins of much of our work was in the hacker culture that grew out of MIT, Carnegie Mellon University and University of California, Berkeley in the 1970 and 1980s; the academic culture that developed much of the key technology of today’s Internet.” (Winn and Lockwood 2013) I think that the Free Culture movement in general owes much to its academic origins and can be understood as an exemplar alternative organizing principle that is proliferating in universities in the form of open, networked collaborative initiatives such as Open Access and Open Educational Resources. (Neary and Winn 2009)

“When understood from this point of view, LNCD, as a Student as Producer initiative, is attempting to develop a culture for staff and students based on the key academic values that motivated the early academic hacker culture: autonomy, the sharing of knowledge and creative output, transparency through peer-review, and peer-recognition based on merit.” (Winn and Lockwood 2013)

During this period, we also ran a national student hackathon called DevXS when 180 students from around the country came to Lincoln for two days to “challenge and positively disrupt the research, teaching and learning landscapes of further and higher education.” 6 I’ve written about some of the projects and the hackathon elsewhere (Winn 2012; Winn and Lockwood 2013).

I was always mindful that LNCD should contribute towards the greater strategic priority of Student as Producer. It would do this by helping re-configure the nature of teaching and learning in higher education by encouraging students to become part of the academic project of the University and collaborators with academics in the production of knowledge and meaning. To recall Benjamin’s lecture: for me, LNCD was an attempt to “reflect deeply on the conditions of present day production” in higher education, and “at the same time, work on the means of [knowledge] production” with students and other members of staff.

AN ANTI-DISCIPLINARY RESEARCH DEGREE

The problem with LNCD is that we became regarded as just another research group and did not become the ‘skunkworks’ group for the institution that I hope we would. When JISC, the funder of our projects, ceased to advertise funding calls, there was nothing to fall back on. I was pretty burnt out by that point, too.

As an alternative to what I tried to do through LNCD, we are now working towards the validation in 2015 of a new post-graduate research degree, provisionally titled ‘The university as a hackerspace’. My hope is that as an academic programme with students, it will be more reflective of, and tightly integrated into, the core function and purpose of the university: research-based teaching and learning. I hope this will make it more sustainable and that staff will understand its objectives better than they did LNCD.

It is intended to be Lincoln’s first cross-university, ‘anti-disciplinary’ academic programme. It is intended to act as a focal point for teaching, learning, research and development of new technologies and technology culture. It is not intended to be a degree about ‘educational technology’, but rather a creative, critical research programme that seeks to understand and contribute to the role of technology in education through its wider role in society and culture.

The idea for this Master’s level research programme, is influenced by the rapidly emerging ‘makerspaces’ 7 and ‘hackerspaces’. 8 The programme will seek to learn from, emulate and contribute to what we see happening in hacker/maker/DIY culture: e.g. ‘fablabs’, 9 ‘hacklabs’, 10 and ‘open science’. 11 Research and development outputs from the programme are expected to formally feed back and inform the way that the university invests in, supports and promotes the use of technology for education and research. In this way, the research programme is intended to act, in part, as a ‘skunkworks’ 12 group for the whole institution.

The programme will combine inter-disciplinary research and development, teaching, learning and enterprise, but recognises that those activities are evolving and that hackers, makers and entrepreneurs are developing an alternative educational model that is replacing these functions of the university: the opportunities for learning, collaboration, reputation building/accreditation and access to cheap hardware and software for prototyping ideas, can and are taking place outside universities. However, university culture remains a place where the ‘hacker ethic’ (i.e. collaboration, sharing, respect for good ideas, meritocracy, autonomy, curiosity, fixing things, anti-technological determinism, peer review, perpetual learning, etc.) remains relevant and respected and resources are widespread. (Levy 1984; Himanen 2001)

The degree will be a flexible, research-based, postgraduate programme that is truly interdisciplinary and always experimental in its form and content: A space for learning, critique and innovation, engaging academics and students in the sciences, arts, media and humanities to think deeply about the way technology is used for research, teaching, learning and the wider social good. The programme will create a supportive space for students with different disciplinary backgrounds and interests to work together under the mentorship of university staff. The programme will recognise that both staff and students have much to learn from each other.

QUESTIONS NEEDING ANSWERS

We’re still in the early stages of thinking this through and as you can imagine, it’s throwing up a number of questions.

  • Can a university contain (intellectually, politically, practically) a hackerspace?
  • Are the two organisational and educational forms compatible?
  • Who owns an ‘antidisciplinary’ programme?
  • Who benefits from it? How?
  • Why would a student enrol?
  • How can we involve the local community?
  • What is the final award?
  • How are contributions (staff time, Schools’ facilities) acknowledged?
  • How is the degree structured?
  • How many students are required to make this work (i.e. what is the critical size of the ‘collective’)
  • What are the administrative constraints and regulatory obligations?

I welcome comments on what we are trying to do and whether you think it is feasible or even desirable. If you know of similar efforts elsewhere, please share them. Thank you.

FURTHER READING

Special Issue of Journal of Peer Production

http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-2/peer-reviewed-papers/

Hackerspaces: The Beginning (book)

http://blog.hackerspaces.org/2011/08/31/hackerspaces-the-beginning-the-book/

Benjamin, Walter (2005) Walter Benjamin: 1931-1934 v. 2, Pt. 2: Selected Writings, Harvard University Press.

Friere, Paulo (2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Continuum.

HEA (2010) Student as Producer: Research Engaged Teaching and Learning-An Institutional Strategy http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/projects/detail/ntfs/ntfsprojects_Lincoln10

Himanen, Pekka. 2001. The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age. Vintage.

Kay, Geoffrey and Mott, James (1982) Political Order and the Law of Labour. The MacMillan Press, London.

Levy, Steven.1984. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Penguin Books.

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2009) The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. In: The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience. Continuum, London, pp. 192-210.

Neary, M. and Hagyard, A. (2010) ‘PedagogyofExcess: AnAlternativePoliticalEconomyofStudentLife’. In: The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer, Routledge, Abingdon, 209-224.

Schrock, Andrew Richard (2014) “Education in Disguise”: Culture of a Hacker and Maker Space http://escholarship.org/uc/item/0js1n1qg

Winn, Joss (2012) Hacking the university. Lincoln’s approach to openness. http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/topics/opentechnologies/openeducation/lincoln-university-summary.aspx

Winn, Joss and Lockwood, Dean (2013) Student as Producer is hacking the university. In: Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age . Routledge.

Winn, Joss (2013) Hacking in the university: contesting the valorisation of academic labour. Triple C : Communication, Capitalism and Critique, 11 (2). pp. 486-503.

Academic labour, students as consumers and the value form

Engels: “the philistine is not accustomed to this sort of abstract thought and certainly will not cudgel his brains for the sake of the form of value.” (Marx and Engels Collected Works, 1987, vol. 42, p.381)

Marx: “As to the development of the value-form I have and have not followed your advice, in order to behave dialectically in this respect as well; i.e. I have: 1. written an appendix in which I present the same thing as simply and pedagogically as possible, and 2. followed your advice and divided each step in the development into §§, etc. with separate headings. …Here not merely philistines are concerned but youth eager for knowledge, etc. Besides, the matter is too decisive for the whole book.” (Marx and Engels Collected Works, 1987, vol. 42, p.385)

In a car factory, each worker labours alongside each other, combining their labour power with the means of production, in a social, cooperative, productive whole. The product of their labour (cars) is exchanged for money, a universal commodity owned by the consumer.

On a trawler ship, each worker labours alongside each other, combining their labour power with the means of production, in a social, cooperative, productive whole. The product of their labour (fish) is exchanged for money, a universal commodity owned by the consumer.

In a university, each worker labours alongside each other, combining their labour power with the means of production, in a social, cooperative, productive whole. The product of their labour (knowledge) is exchanged for money, but also consumed for the reproduction of both the teacher’s and student’s labour power commodity. Research, teaching and learning is at once a productive and reproductive process that engages the consumer (student) in the process of production. As such, the student also produces knowledge that engages the consumer (academic) in the process of production. The exchange between academic and student takes place alongside the productive process, on its opposite pole.

When knowledge is produced as a commodity, labour-power is also re-produced as a commodity. As bearers of the labour-power commodity, what is the social relationship between academic and student when knowledge is produced?

In what follows, I have taken Marx’s “pedagogical” appendix to the first German edition of Capital and used it to theorise the reproduction of knowledge and academic and student labour power. In Marx’s original text, he uses the two groups of: ‘commodity A’ / linen / weaving, and: ‘commodity B’ / a coat / tailoring as his standard points of reference throughout. In the work below, I have replaced them respectively with: “commodity A” / “academic labour power” / “teaching”, and: “commodity B” / “student labour power” / “learning”. It is my argument that we can use Marx’s theory and method of the value form in exactly the same way to analyse knowledge production in a university.

As such, you should understand that all sentence length quotes below are likely to have been modified so as to illustrate this point while, I believe, not undermining Marx’s original explication. I encourage you to study Marx’s original text.

What I hope this exercise offers is a more substantive, critical examination of the actual social relations of higher education than our work on Student as Producer has so far offered. As a critique of those social relations, Neary’s work on Student as Producer has most recently developed a critique of its own productivist foundations but it has not, in my view, adequately revealed the political economy of higher education. My notes below are an attempt drill deeper into the circuit of value production in the university at the centre of which is the social, co-operative labour of academics and students. In doing do, I believe that Neary’s and also Moten and Harney’s argument for the ‘student as producer’ can be more rigorously grounded. Through Marx’s dialectical method of rising from the abstract to the concrete, we find that the ‘logic’ of teaching and learning in higher education is itself an expression of the value form of capital.

1. What is a commodity?

The commodity form is two-fold: use value and value. Use value is the form of the commodity’s “tangible, sensible form of existence”;  the “natural form” of the commodity. Opposed to this is the value form of the commodity, which is its “social form”. Linen and coats are commodities. They both have a utility and they are both exchanged for other commodities (e.g. money) resulting in the production of value.

The primary commodity that an individual owns is their labour power. 1 Like linen and coats and any other commodity, labour power is a commodity with a use value and a value that is realised in exchange.

2. Whose labour power commodity?

A typical university brings together thousands of individuals’ labour power, each of which have different use values categorised by various contracts (e.g. lecturer, catering assistant, IT officer, professor, undergraduate students, post-graduate student, research assistant).

A lecturer is only designated a ‘lecturer’ by their contract with the university and they are paid a wage (value in the form of money) in exchange for their labour power which itself has a use value that must meet the expectations of that contract. The use value of their labour is combined with the means of production (prior knowledge, facilities, technologies, etc.) to create surplus value (profit).

A student is only designated a ‘student’ by their contract with the university and tuition fees are paid (value in the form of money from the individual, their family, through loans, or through general taxation) in exchange for participation in the labour process of knowledge production i.e. research, teaching and learning, and its accreditation. 2

Although the student brings their money commodity to the university in exchange for teaching, assessment, accreditation, etc. they also bring the use value of their own labour power and exchange it as a commodity when they consume the use value of their teachers’ labour. Although there is no direct exchange of money in the classroom (that is taken care of elsewhere), the exchange of teacher and student labour power as a commodity does take on the characteristics of the value form i.e. its social form, as we will see below.

“Consider the following questions: Where is the site of production in the classroom? What is produced? Who pro­duces, who consumes, who circulates? Any answer appears to confuse not only the point of production but also the bearers of labor power by generalizing production through consumption and circulation. The pro­fessor produces the lecture but tries to realize its value in the quality of the questions he receives after. The students consume the lecture but generate questions. The professor circulates already produced knowledge that he has consumed for his lecture notes. The students produce knowl­edge on exams and circulate the knowledge of the professor through these exams. The professor consumes the knowledge of the student on the midterm exam in order to produce a new exam at year’s end. At no point is any producer not simultaneously a consumer, and at no point is production not subject to the immediacy of circulation. Most important, if value is being realized in any of this circulation, then it is being real­ized in all of this circulation. The argument could thus be made that both professor and student (not to mention the absent labor of the graduate tutor) are coworkers in the production of knowledge, and that all are involved realizing the value of this work” (Moten and Harney, 1998: 167)

Each classroom discussion, each exam paper, each essay, is simultaneously a moment of production and consumption for the academic and for the student. Both are producers and both are consumers of each other’s (intellectual) labour power and its (knowledge) product. Both bring their physical and intellectual labour power to the university so as to produce knowledge and exchange it and produce it and exchange it and so on. I am reminded of Marx’s notes in his manuscripts: 3

“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.”

What differentiates the labour power commodity of the academic and the student is its perceived social quality at the moment of exchange. In this context, the labour power of the academic is usually perceived to be of ‘higher’ quality than the labour power of the student as determined by their respective experience and accreditation. Both are the possessors of the  same ‘labour power’ commodity but they are, at that time, of different qualities, which can determine the quantities being exchanged. In this respect, academic labour power differs from student labour power. They are different, apparently unequal types of the ‘labour power’ commodity. They are not naturally different – each is indeed labour power, the potential to perform labour of a particular kind – but they are socially deemed as different commodities.

As well as these ‘simple’ exchanges of the use value of labour power between academic and student in the classroom, in tutorials, marking essays and exams, etc., money in the form of tuition fees, wages and surplus value/profit circulates, too, expressing a different appearance of the simple exchange relation. As Marx did, we can analyse production and consumption in the university in its simple, expanded, general and money forms. What is unusual about this analysis here is that I am referring to labour power as something exchanged between teacher and student, apart from the university/employer/wage/tuition fee exchange. This is possible because of the universal character of the money form, which is present at all times in the teaching and learning context, but remains largely unacknowledged in the classroom.

3. How is the value of a commodity expressed?

How does the value of the academic and student labour power commodity “acquire a form of appearance of its own”?

“Through the relation of different commodities” of different qualities: academic and student labour power. Our analysis starts from their simplest configuration:

3.1 Simple value form

Marx said that “the secret of the entire value form must be hidden in this simple value form.”

The “two poles of the expression of value”: are relative value form and equivalent form.

In the simple form, two commodities simultaneously play two different roles. Commodity A is the commodity “which expresses its value in the body of a commodity different from it”, commodity B.

Commodity B “serves as the material in which value is expressed. The one commodity plays an active and the other a passive role.”

“Now we say of the academic labour power commodity (commodity A) which expresses its value in another commodity: its value is represented as relative value, or is in the relative value-form. As opposed to this, we say of commodity B, here student labour power, which serves as the material of the expression of value: it functions as equivalent to the first commodity or is in the equivalent form.”

The two forms are “inseparable”.  “Relative value-form and equivalent form are moments of the same expression of value, which belong to one another and are reciprocally conditioning and inseparable.”

The “two forms are mutually excluding or opposed extremes, i.e. poles, of the same expression of value. They are always distributed amongst different commodities”.

“The value of commodity A can thus only be expressed in another commodity, i.e. only relatively. The relative value-form of commodity A thus presupposes that that some other commodity confronts it in the equivalent form. On the other hand, this other commodity, B, which figures as the equivalent of commodity A is thus in equivalent form, and can not be at the same time in the relative value-form. This commodity does not express its value. It furnishes only the material for the expression of value in another commodity.”

The equation ‘commodity A = commodity B” can be stated conversely: “commodity B is worth commodity A”. The equation is reversed “in order to express the value of commodity B relatively, and once I do this commodity A becomes the equivalent instead of commodity B.”

“The same commodity therefore cannot make its appearance in the same expression of value at the same time in both forms. Rather, these exclude one another in a polar manner.”

Person A says: X amounts of my commodity is worth Y amounts of your commodity.

B agrees: Yes, Y amounts of my commodity is worth X amounts of your commodity.

“Here, as commodities, both academic labour power and student labour power are at the same time in relative value-form and in equivalent form…for two different persons and in two different expressions of value, which simply occur at the same time. For the academic, her commodity is in relative value-form – because for her the initiative proceeds from her commodity – and the labour power commodity of the other person, the student, is in equivalent form. Conversely from the standpoint of the student. Thus one and the same commodity never possess, even in this case, the two forms at the same time in the same expression of value.”

“Relative value and equivalent are both only forms of commodity-value. Now whether a commodity is in one form or in the polar opposite depends exclusively on its position in the expression of value. As regards the content, the two expressions:

1. X amount of commodity A = Y amount of commodity B or X amount of academic labour power is worth Y amount of student labour power.

2. Y amount of commodity B = X amount of commodity A or Y amount of student labour power is worth X amount of academic labour power.

are not at all different. As regards the form, they are not only different but opposed.”

“In expression 1 the value of academic labour power is expressed relatively. Hence it is in the relative value-form whilst at the same time the value of student labour power is expressed as equivalent. Hence it is in the equivalent form. Now if I turn the expression 1 round I obtain expression 2. The commodities change positions and right away student labour power is in the relative value-form, academic labour power in equivalent form. Because they have changed their respective positions in the same expression of value, they have changed value-form.”

3.1.1 The relative value form

The relative value form is a “relation of equality”, of “equalisation” between commodity A which expresses its value in relation to commodity B. Therefore, we can in fact say: academic labour power = student labour power; that is, in the act of exchange, both use values ‘owned’ by the academic and student are reduced to the same thing: value.

“We overlook that for the most part, because attention is absorbed by the quantitative relation, i.e. by the definite proportion, in which the one type of commodity is equated to the other. We forget that the magnitudes of different things are only quantitatively comparable after their reduction to the same unit. Only as expressions of the same unit are magnitudes with the same denominator and hence commensurable. Academic labour power thus relates to student labour power as something of its own kind, or student labour power is related to academic labour power as a thing of the same substance, as the same in essence. The one is therefore quantitatively equated to the other.”

“The relation of equality is thus a value-relation… As use-value, or body of the commodity, academic labour power is distinguished from student labour power. But its existence as value comes to light, is expressed in a relation, in which another commodity-type, student labour power, is equated to it or counts as the same in essence.”

“Student labour power is value only to the extent that it is the expression, in the form of a thing, of the human labour-power expended in its production and thus insofar as it is a jelly of abstract human labour – abstract labour, because abstraction is made from the definite useful concrete character of the labour contained in it, human labour, because the labour counts here only as expenditure of human labour-power as such. Thus academic labour power cannot relate to student labour power as a thing having value, or cannot be related to student labour power as value, without relating to it as a body whose sole substance consists in human labour. But as value academic labour power is a jelly of this same human labour. Within this relation student labour power as a thing thus represents the substances of value which it has in common with academic labour power, i.e. human labour. Within this relation student labour power thus counts only as shape of value, hence also as the form of the value of academic labour power, as the sensible form of appearance of the value of academic labour power. Thus by means of the value-relation the value of the commodity is expressed in the use-value of another commodity, i.e. in the body of another commodity different from itself.”

A “definite quantity of human labour is objectified” in a commodity. This is clear when comparing academic and student labour power.

“In the value relation of academic labour power to student labour power the commodity-type ‘student labour power’ is hence not only quantitatively equated to academic labour power as bodily form of value as such, i.e. as embodiment of human labour, but a definite quantity of this bodily form of value, 1 x student labour power, not 1 dozen, etc, insofar as in 10 x student labour power, there is hidden precisely as much value-substance of human labour as in 1 x academic labour power.”

Academic and student labour power are equivalent as value. They are also equated as values which embody quantities of human labour  and thus are equated as definite magnitudes e.g. the labour power of one academic is equivalent to the labour power of 10 students.

“Thus through the relative value-expression the value of the commodity acquires, first, a form different from its own use-value. The use-form of this commodity is academic labour power. But it possesses its value-form in its relation of equality with student labour power. Through this relation of equality the body of another commodity, sensibly different from it, becomes the mirror of its own existence as value, of its own character as value. In this way it gains an independent and separate value-form, different from its natural form. But second, as a value of definite magnitude, it is quantitatively measured by the quantitatively definite relation or the proportion in which it is equated to the body of the other commodity.”

3.1.2 The equivalent form

“As values all commodities are expressions of the same unit, of human labour, which count equally and are replaceable or substitutable for one another.”

Value is the form through which different use values of different commodities are regarded as equivalent and can be exchanged. Academic labour power “does not need to take on a form different from its immediate natural form in order to appear as value for another commodity, to count as value and to act on it as value”.

Equivalence between commodities is not concerned with “quantitative definiteness”. Equivalence does not at first come about through a judgement of e.g. 1 x commodity A is worth 10 x commodity B. Prior to this quantitative definiteness, a more basic equivalence occurs between commodities. They are both equated as value:

“Equivalent means here only something equal in magnitude, both things having been silently reduced in our heads to the abstraction value.”

The equivalent form of value is “peculiar” in that “use value becomes the form of appearance of its opposite, of value.” That is, the use value of academic labour power takes on the value of that which it can be exchanged with: student labour power.

“In itself, considered in isolation, student labour power is only a useful thing, a use-value, just like academic labour power, and hence its student-labour-power-form is only the form of use-value or natural form of a definite type of commodity. But since no commodity can relate to itself as equivalent and therefore also cannot make its own natural hide an expression of its own value, it must relate itself to another commodity as equivalent or make the natural hide of the body of another commodity its own value-form.”

The equivalent value form is also peculiar because “concrete labour becomes the form of appearance of its opposite, abstract human labour.”

The concrete labour of the academic and student is useful. It is the labour of teaching, of learning, of researching, of writing, of marking, etc.

“The definite concrete useful labour, which produces the body of the commodity which is the equivalent must therefore, in the expression of value, always necessarily count as a definite form of realisation or form of appearance, i.e. of abstract human labour. Student labour power, for example, can only count as the body of value, hence as embodiment of human labour as such, in so far as the labour of learning counts as a definite form, in which human labour-power is expended or in which abstract human labour is realised.”

“Within the value-relation and the value expression included in it, the abstractly general counts not as a property of the concrete, sensibly real; but on the contrary the sensibly-concrete counts as the mere form of appearance or definite form of realisation of the abstractly general. The labour of learning, which, for example, hides in the equivalent ‘student labour power’, does not possess, within the value-expression of academic labour, the general property of also being human labour. On the contrary. Being human labour counts as its essence, being the labour of learning counts only as the form of appearance or definite form of realisation of this its essence. This quid pro quo is unavoidable because the labour represented in the product of labour only goes to create value insofar as it is undifferentiated human labour, so that the labour objectified in the value of the product is in no way distinguished from the labour objectified in the value of a different product.

This inversion by which the sensibly-concrete counts only as the form of appearance of the abstractly general and not, on the contrary, the abstractly general as property of the concrete, characterises the expression of value.”

The equivalent value form is also peculiar because “private labour becomes the form of its opposite, labour in immediately social form.”

“[The] material social interconnection of private labours carried on independently of one another is however only mediated and hence is realised only through the exchange of their products. The product of private labour hence only has social form insofar as it has value-form and hence the form of exchangeability with other products of labour. It has immediately social form insofar as its own bodily or natural form is at the same time the form of its exchangeability with other commodities or counts as value-form for another commodity. However, as we have seen, this only takes place for a product of labour when, through the value relation of other commodities to it, it is in equivalent-form or, with respect to other commodities, plays the role of equivalent.

The equivalent has immediately social form insofar as it has the form of immediate exchangeability with another commodity, and it has this form of immediate exchangeability insofar as it counts for another commodity as the body of value, hence as equal. Therefore the definite useful labour contained in it also counts as labour in immediately social form, i.e. as labour which possesses the form of equality with the labour contained in another commodity. A definite, concrete labour like the labour of learning can only possess the form of equality with the labour of a different type contained in a commodity of a different kind, for example academic labour power, insofar as its definite form counts as the expression of something which really constitutes the equality of labours of different sorts or what is equal in those labours. But they are only equal insofar as they are human labour as such, abstract human labour, i.e. expenditure of human labour-power. Thus, as has already been shown, because the definite concrete labour contained in the equivalent counts as the definite form of realisation or form of appearance of abstract human labour, it possesses the form of equality with other labour, and hence, although it is private labour, like all other labour which produces commodities, it is nevertheless labour in immediately social form. Precisely because of this it is represented in a product that is immediately exchangeable with the other commodities.”

The equivalent value form is also peculiar because “the fetishism of the commodity-form is more striking in the equivalent form than in the relative value-form.”

In day-to-day life, the products of labour (software, journal articles, books, linen, iron, wheat) relate to one another as commodities. They are values, they are measurable as magnitudes of value, and their common character of being values puts them into a value-relation to one another. Now the fact that, for example, ‘1 x academic labour power = 10 x student labour power’ or ‘1 lot of commodity A is worth 10 of commodity B’ only expresses the fact that:

  1. the different types of labour necessary for the production of these things count equally as human labour;

  2. the fact that the quantity of labour expended in their production is measured according to definite social laws;

  3. that academics and students enter into a definite social relation of production.

“It is a definite social relation of the producers in which they equate their different types of labour as human labour. It is not less a definite social relation of producers, in which they measure the magnitude of their labours by the duration of expenditure of human labour-power. But within our practical interrelations these social characters of their own labours appear to them as social properties pertaining to them by nature, as objective determinations of the products of labour themselves, the equality of human labours as a value-property of the products of labour, the measure of the labour by the socially necessary labour-time as the magnitude of value of the products of labour, and finally the social relations of the producers through their labours appear as a value-relation or social relation of these things, the products of labour. Precisely because of this the products of labour appear to them as commodities, sensible-supersensible or social things.”

The main product of labour in the university is knowledge which is ‘reinvested’ into the labour power of academics and students, as well as exchanged for grants, patents, consultancy, etc. The socially necessary labour time required to acquire a level of knowledge which meets the requirements of the academic employment contract exceeds that of the socially necessary labour time required to acquire a level of knowledge which meets the requirements of entry into a university as a student. The magnitude of value of academic labour power, measured by socially necessary labour time, is therefore greater than the magnitude of value of student labour power. Although both are ‘labour power’ commodities, they are qualitatively different, yet in practice they are brought together for exchange by being relative and equivalent to each other as values. As a value relation, it is therefore a social relation.

“the commodity-form and the value-relation of products of labour have absolutely nothing to do with their physical nature and the relations between things which springs from this. It is only the definite social relation of people itself which here takes on for them the phantasmagoric form of a relation of things. Hence in order to find an analogy for this we must take flight into the cloudy region of the religious world. Here the products of the human head appear as independent figures endowed with a life of their own and standing in a relation to one another and to people. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of the human hand. This I call the fetishism which clings to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities and which is therefore inseparable from commodity- production.”

The product of the exchange of academic-student labour power appears as knowledge, embodied in their respective labour power commodity, objectified in the classroom, essays, exams, journal articles, books, etc. It is the university campus, the lecture hall, the seminar room, the exam, the book, the article, etc. which seemingly bring academics and students together and construct relations between them, when in fact behind this is the commodity form and the value relation of labour power itself and the products of labour power. The university is a fetish.

3.1.3 Exchange value

“The expression of value has two poles, relative value-form and equivalent-form. To start with, what concerns the commodity functioning as equivalent is that it counts for another commodity as the shape of value, a body in immediately exchangeable form – exchange-value. But the commodity whose value is expressed relatively, possesses the form of exchange-value in that:

  1. its existence as value is revealed by the exchangeability of the body of another commodity with it;
  2. its magnitude of value is expressed through the proportion in which the other commodity is exchangeable with it.

The exchange-value is hence the independent form of appearance of commodity- value.”

Academic labour power and student labour power both exist simultaneously and immediately as opposite poles of relative value form and equivalent form. As equivalent form, student labour power is the shape of value of academic labour power. As relative value form, the shape of value of student labour power is academic labour power. There is unity in their opposite. This is not concerned with the magnitude of value, which is determined by the socially necessary labour time expended to re-produce their respective labour power up to the moment of exchange. It simply refers to the existence of exchange value, which is not to be confused with the ‘price’ of a commodity and certainly not the surplus value or ‘profit’ which may be produced through the exchange. Exchange value is the value expressed by one equivalent commodity relative to another commodity.

The magnitude of value of academic and student labour power is expressed through the degree of knowledge and subsequent physical and mental skills, which the academic and student respectively embody in the moment of exchange. This is tested socially through the exchange of labour power with other commodities. Can the student learn the same thing from another student as effectively in the same amount of time as they can from an academic? Can they learn it from the Internet as effectively in the same amount of time? Can the academic produce the same amount of knowledge as effectively and in the same amount of time if they don’t teach at all? Can the academic produce the same amount of knowledge as effectively and in the same amount of time simply through ‘independent’ research (to the extent that research is ever independent of existing social relations).

“In the relation of value of academic labour power to student labour power the natural form of academic labour power counts only as the shape of use-value, the natural form of  student labour power only as value-form or shape of exchange-value. The inner opposition between use-value and value contained in a commodity is thus represented by an external opposition, i.e. the relation of two commodities, of which the one counts immediately only as use-value, the other immediately only as exchange-value, or in which the two opposing determinations, use-value and exchange-value, are distributed in a polar manner among the commodities.

If I say: As a commodity academic labour power is use-value and exchange-value, this is my judgement about the nature of the commodity gained by analysis. As opposed to this, in the expression ‘the labour power of one academic = the labour power of 10 students’ or ‘one academic is worth 10 students’ the academic labour power itself says that it

  1. is a use-value (academic labour power e.g. to teach, to research);

  2. is an exchange-value distinct from that (something equal to student labour power); and

  3. is the unity of these two differences, and thus is a commodity.”

“The product of labour in its natural form brings with it into the world the form of a use-value. Therefore it requires further only the value-form in order for it to possess the commodity-form, i.e. for it to appear as a unity of the opposites use-value and exchange-value. The development of the value-form is hence identical with the development of the commodity-form.”

Labour power in all its expressions (teaching, research, learning, bricklaying, etc.) is the product of the social re-production of labour power which reproduces itself as intelligent, strong, skilful,  useful human labour. For whatever reason, when it enters into an exchange relation it acquires the value form and hence the commodity form: “a unity of the opposites use value and exchange value.”

Commodities exist in “a relation of qualitative equality and quantitative proportionality” to each other. For example, let’s say that the labour power of 1 academic is equal to the labour power of 10 students. 4

or

1 academic is worth 10 students

or

1 academic = £20,000 (in student ‘contact time’ alone)

or

1 academic is worth £20,000

From this, we can see that the money form (e.g. £20,000) “is nothing but the further development of the simple value form of the commodity, and therefore of the simple commodity form of the labour product.” The simple commodity form undergoes a “series of metamorphoses” to start from ‘the labour power of 1 academic is equal to the labour power of 10 students’ to “take on the shape”, ‘1 academic is worth £20,000’.

“The expression of value in student labour power gives academic labour power a value-form by virtue of which it is distinguished simply as value from itself as use-value. This form also puts it only in relation to student labour power, i.e. to some single type of commodity different from itself. But as value it is the same as all other commodities. Its value-form must hence also be a form which puts it into a relation of qualitative equality and quantitative proportionality to all other commodities – to the simple relative value-form of a commodity corresponds the singular equivalent-form of another commodity. Or the commodity, in which value is expressed, functions here only as singular equivalent. Thus student labour power in the relative expression of value of academic labour power possesses only the equivalent-form or the form of immediate exchangeability with relation to this single type of commodity, academic labour power.”

4. Total or Expanded Value form

“The simple value-form requires the value of one commodity to be expressed in only one commodity of another sort, though it does not matter which.”

In this way, academic labour can be understood relative to student labour power, or to another commodity such as a computer, a bag of wheat, a drum of oil, etc. It follows then that if a single commodity can be relative in value to another single commodity, then it can also be relative to any other commodity, rather than in isolation with just a single other commodity.

“There exists the possibility that it has just as many different simple expressions of value as there are different sorts of commodities. In fact, therefore, its complete relative expression of value consists not in an isolated simple relative expression of value but in the sum of its simple relative expressions of value.”

Thus we obtain:

1 x academic labour power = 10 x student labour power or = 40 computers or = 1000 bags of wheat or = 40 drums of oil or = etc. 5

“This series of simple relative expressions of value is in its nature constantly extendible or never concludes. For there constantly occur new types of commodities and each new type of commodity forms the material of a new expression of value.”

“The value of a commodity, for example academic labour power, is now represented in all other elements of the world of commodities. The body of each other commodity becomes the mirror of the value of academic labour power. Thus only now does this value itself appear truly as a jelly of undifferentiated human labour. For the labour which constitutes the value of academic labour power is now expressly represented as labour which counts equally with any other human labour whatever natural form at all it possesses and hence whether it is objectified in student labour power or wheat or iron or gold, etc. Hence by virtue of its value-form academic labour power now stands also in a social relation no longer to only a single other type of commodity, but to the world of commodities. As a commodity it is a citizen of this world. At the same time there is inherent in the endless series of its expressions the fact that the value of commodities is irrelevant with regard to each particular form of use-value in which it appears.”

Marx identified the “deficiencies” of the expanded value form as:

  1. It never concludes in a final commodity and expression of value.
  2. The value of a commodity is only ever expressed in a limited number of equivalent commodities while excluding others.
  3. Human labour is only ever expressed in a particular form of commodity, rather than a unified form.

The commodity “is a citizen of the world”, meaning that the magnitude of value of a commodity can be expressed relative or equivalent to any other commodity. Because of this, Marx argues, just as we moved from an analysis of the simple form to the expanded form, we must also move from the expanded form to the ‘general value form’. In this overall transition from the simple to the expanded to the general and eventually the money form, we move to an overall more social form of commodity exchange, which can only operate through increasing levels of ‘real abstraction’ in daily life.

5. General value form

“The relative value-form now possesses a completely changed shape. All commodities express their value:

  1. simply, namely in the body of one other single commodity,
  2. in a unified manner, i.e. in the same other body of a commodity.

Their value-form is simple and common, i.e. general. Academic labour now counts for the bodies of all the different sorts of commodities as their common and general shape of value. The value-form of a commodity, i.e. the expression of its value in academic labour, now distinguishes the commodity not only as value from its own existence as a useful object, i.e. from its own natural form, but at the same time relates it as value to all other commodities, to all commodities as equal to it. Hence in this value-form it possesses general social form.

Only through this general character does the value-form correspond to the concept of value. The value-form had to be a form in which commodities appear for one another as a mere jelly of undifferentiated, homogenous human labour, i.e. as expressions in the form of things of the same labour- substance. This is now attained. For they are all material expressions of the same labour, of the labour contained in academic labour power or as the same material expression of labour, namely as academic labour power. Thus they are qualitatively equated.

At the same time they are quantitatively compared or represented as definite magnitudes of value for one another i.e.:

10 student labour power = 1 academic labour power

and

40 drums of oil = 1 academic labour power

Therefore

10 student labour power = 40 drums of oil

Or in 1 drum of oil there hides only a quarter as much of the substance of value, labour, as in 1 student labour power.”

At this point, the equivalent form becomes further developed to the “general equivalent form; or the commodity in equivalent form is now general equivalent.” As a general equivalent, the natural form of the commodity “is therefore at the same time its general social form.”

“For all other commodities, although they are products of the most different sorts of labour, academic labour power counts as the form of appearance of the labours contained in them, hence as the embodiment of homogenous undifferentiated human labour. Teaching – this particular concrete type of labour – counts now by virtue of the value-relation of the world of commodities to academic labour power as the general and immediately exhaustive form of realisation of abstract human labour, i.e. of the expenditure of human labour-power as such.

For precisely this reason the private labour contained in academic labour power also counts as labour which is immediately in general social form or in the form of equality with all other labours. If a commodity thus possesses the general equivalent-form or functions as general equivalent, its natural or bodily form counts as the visible incarnation, the general social chrysalis of all human labour.”

It is at this point that we can begin to read Marx’s work on the value form without interpretation since we have shown how the labour power of academics and students take on general value form which is relative and equivalent to all other commodities.

“The simple relative value-form expresses the value of a commodity only in a single other type of commodity, no matter in which. The commodity thus only acquires value-form in distinction from its own use-value form or natural form. Its equivalent also acquires only the singular equivalent-form. The expanded relative value-form expresses the value of a commodity in all other commodities. Hence the latter acquire the form of many particular equivalents or particular equivalent-form. Finally, the world of commodities gives itself a unified, general, relative value-form, by excluding from itself one single type of commodity in which all other commodities express their value in common. Thereby the excluded commodity becomes general equivalent or the equivalent-form becomes the general equivalent-form.”

“The polar opposition or the inseparable interconnection  and at the same time constant exclusion of relative value-form and equivalent-form implies:

  1. that a commodity cannot be in one form without another commodity being in the opposite form; and
  2. that as soon as a commodity is in the one form it cannot at the same time, within the same expression of value, be in the other form.

Now this polar opposition of the two moments of the expression of value develops and hardens in the same measure as the value-form as such is developed or built up.”

Note how, in the following summary, Marx demonstrates his method of “rising from the abstract to the concrete”. Although it begins with the ‘simple form’, which might be mistaken as the ‘concrete’ operation of commodity exchange, in fact he shows that the simple form is actually an abstraction intended to reveal the nature of the money form, which does have a concrete existence in our social lives.

“In form I [simple form] the two forms already exclude one another, but only formally. According to whether the same equation is read forwards or backwards, each of the two commodities in the extreme positions like academic labour power and student labour power, are similarly now in the relative value-form, now in the equivalent. At this point it still takes some effort to hold fast to the polar opposition.

In form II [expanded form] only one type of commodity at a time can totally expand its relative value, i.e. it itself possesses expanded relative value-form only because and insofar as all other commodities are in the equivalent-form with regard to it.

Finally, in form III [general form] the world of commodities possesses general social relative value-form only because and insofar as all the commodities belonging to it are excluded from the equivalent-form or the form of immediate exchangeability. Conversely, the commodity which is in the general equivalent form or figures as general equivalent is excluded from the unified and hence general relative value-form of the world of commodities. If the academic labour – i.e. any commodity in general equivalent-form – were also to participate at the same time in the general relative value-form, then it would have had to have been related to itself as equivalent. We then obtain:

5 x academic labour power = 5 x academic labour power

a tautology in which neither value nor magnitude of value is expressed. In order to express the relative value of the general equivalent, we must reverse form III. It does not possess any relative value-form in common with other commodities; rather, its value expresses itself relatively in the endless series of the bodies of all other commodities. Thus the expanded relative value-form or form II now appears as the specific relative value-form of the commodity which plays the role of the general equivalent.”

It is this analysis of the “transition” of the forms of value that prompts us to ask: “Is ‘the student as producer’ a tautology?” The answer is “No!”. A student who is a producer remains a student. Their labour power remains contractually defined by their institution and their past accreditation (socially recognised evidence of its magnitude of value) as ‘student labour power’. To call the labour power of a student, ‘academic labour power’, would, under the logic of commodity fetishism, be a tautology that expresses no value.

Might this then be the key to undermining the capitalist production of value in knowledge production along the lines of Neary’s anti-productivist critique of the ‘student as consumer’? To actually reconceive the labour of academics and student as qualitatively the same labour power, only of recognisably different individual magnitudes, where they are not exchanged on the basis of their relative and equivalent value, but rather “from each according to their ability to each according to their need.” Such a move would entail a different type of reciprocity among people. One which Marx discusses in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. There, he argued that:

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

In that late text, Marx explains why the idea of equality is a bourgeois concept: Individuals are different but under the capitalist mode of production we are regarded fundamentally as equivalent workers. A communist society would recognise and compensate inherent ‘inequalities’.

“But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal… In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

In the existing relationship between academics and students, the magnitude of their respective labour power is ‘equalled’ by the general equivalence of the money commodity. It ‘balances’ the reciprocal value form relationship.

“The general value-form is the developed value-form and hence the developed commodity-form. The materially quite different products of labour cannot possess the finished commodity-form, and hence also cannot function in the process of exchange as a commodity, without being represented as expressions in the form of things of the same equal human labour. That means that in order to acquire the finished commodity-form they must acquire the unified general relative value-form. But they can only acquire this unified relative value-form by excluding from its own series a definite type of commodity as general equivalent. And it is only from the moment when this exclusion is definitely limited to a specific type of commodity that the unified relative value-form has won objective stability and general social validity.

Now the specific type of commodity with whose natural form the equivalent form coalesces socially becomes the money-commodity or functions as money. It specific social function and hence its social monopoly becomes the playing of the role of general equivalent within the world of commodities.”

1 x academic labour = 10 x student labour = 40 x drums of oil = £20,000

6. The money form

“The progress consists only in the fact that the form of immediate general exchangeability or the general equivalent-form has now, by virtue of social custom, definitely coalesced with the specific natural form of the body of the commodity gold. Gold confronts the other commodities as money only because it already confronted them before as a commodity. Like all other commodities it also functions as equivalent, either as singular equivalent in isolated acts of exchange, or as particular equivalent beside other commodity-equivalents. Little by little it functioned in narrower or wider circles as general equivalent. Once it has conquered the monopoly of this position in the expression of value of the world of commodities it becomes the money-commodity, and from the moment when it has already become the money- commodity, form IV distinguishes itself from form III, or the general form of value is transformed into the money-form.”

[It is of no concern here that the gold standard of monetary exchange was abandoned in the 1970s and replaced by fiat money.]

Marx concludes his elucidation of the value form with the final sub-section: ‘The simple commodity form is the secret of the money form’. Here he repeats how he has moved from an abstract analysis to the concrete conditions of capitalist social relations. All the ‘complexity’ of the money form are resolved in the move to simple abstraction.

“We see that the money-form proper offers in itself no difficulty at all. Once we have seen through the general equivalent-form it does not require the least brain-fag to understand that this equivalent-form fastens on to  a specific type of commodity like gold, and still less insofar as the general equivalent-form in its very nature requires the social exclusion of a definite commodity by all other commodities. It is now only a matter of this exclusion winning an objectively social consistency and general validity, and hence does not concern different commodities in turn nor possesses a merely local reach  in only particular areas of the world of commodities. The difficulty in the concept of the money-form is limited to comprehending the general equivalent-form as such, form III. However, form III in turn  resolves itself into form II, and the constitutive element of form II is form I:

1 x academic labour power = 10 x student labour power
or
x commodity A = y commodity B.

Now if we know what use-value and exchange-value are, then we find out that this form I is the simplest, most undeveloped manner of representing any product of labour, like academic labour power for example, as a commodity, i.e. as a unity of the opposites use-value and exchange-value. At the same time we easily find the series of metamorphoses which the simplest commodity-form

1 x academic labour power = 10 x student labour power
must run through in order to win its finished shape
1 x academic labour power = £20,000

i.e. the money-form.”

This analysis suggests that a post-capitalist university is one where the labour power of individuals is not measured relative or equivalent to each other according to the magnitude of its socially determined value, represented by the universal commodity: money.

Their respective labour power is understood qualitatively in terms of their individual experience, skills and knowledge of the social and physical world: their ability or capacity as social human beings, and it is not deemed deficient during acts of ‘unequal’ reciprocity. In a post-capitalist university, social relations would accept absolute difference between individuals, rather than acknowledge difference while at the same time organising our social lives around an objective form of equivalence: money.

In a capitalist university, students’ and academics’ labour power are qualitatively different use values brought into an exchange relation, yet it is a distinctive relationship because it is at the same time co-operative and productive. It produces knowledge, which might be sold directly through consultancy, patents, etc. or through its role in the reproduction of labour power, it will be sold elsewhere by the student for a wage.

Neary posited the student as producer without analysing the student’s role as consumer. Moten and Harney argue students are producers through social, cooperative production. As I have tried to show, this social co-operation is expressed as the relative and equivalent poles of the value form, in which the producer and consumer are immediate to one-another at all time in a unity of opposites, dominated by the money-form.

Writing about academic labour

Some of these notes were eventually turned into a journal article for Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labour.

“The subjectivity currently produced by academic labour warrants investigation.” (Moten and Harney, 1998: 155)

“In fact, the subjectivity produced by this particular production process cries out for investigation.” (ibid: 157)

Real abstraction

I am writing a paper on ‘academic labour‘ – well, I have been for some time now – and I’m beginning to get a sense of the literature in this field of scholarship. My approach to understanding academic labour is to try to adopt Marx’s social theory and method; to first understand labour abstractly and then, having done so, to examine and explain the way academic labour appears concretely at a particular moment in time. Ideally, it is a dialectical process of  both deduction and induction; one which asserts that capitalist society is structured by a “quasi-independent logic” (Postone, 1993) whereby socially constructed abstractions have real concrete existence and power over people (i.e. “real abstraction”). What I’m finding is that the literature on academic labour largely focuses on the latter approach (i.e. attention is give to the concrete labour process) while rarely reaching the former (i.e. abstraction), let alone being grounded in it. One of the problems with such an approach is that the “hypostatisation of the concrete” (Postone, 1986) is a form of reification which more often leads to a sense of helplessness, or even worse, fascism. Postone considers this grasp of the abstract as concrete as “an expression of a deep and fundamental helplessness, conceptually as well as politically.”

There is a great deal written about the apparent crisis of academic work, its so-called ‘performativity‘, its precarity, its taylorisation, and in general its violation by a variety of ‘neoliberal’ technologies. I’m increasingly inclined to think that any author whose argument rests on a critique of ‘neoliberalism’ simultaneously reveals the limits of their argument. Simon Clarke once described ‘neoliberalism’ as “a reassertion of the fundamental beliefs of the liberal political economy that was the dominant political ideology of the nineteenth century.” His point in that article is that despite a variety of periodic expressions, the problem that our critique must always be mindful to address is the problem of capital. When the problem is deemed to be ‘neoliberalism’, attempts to critique it are likely to remain as superficial, unscientific and moralistic as neoliberal theology itself.

Why, I wonder, is this the case? As I indicated above, I think the issue is largely methodological. On this point, I have found Moten and Harney (via Stuart Hall, via Marx) helpful. They point to four approaches to the study of capitalist societies:

  1. There was the practical knowledge of businessmen about how the market worked, a knowledge that proved true because it made them rich.
  2. There was the vulgar propaganda of 19th century economists and politicians, who spun theories out of this practical knowledge to defend it, and whose knowledge was also true to the extent they were able to dominate this society with their (to Marx) crude schematic of how the market worked.
  3. There was theoretical work of classical economists like Smith and Ricardo, whose more sophisticated and in-depth analysis of the human conditions produced by the market Marx admired as a truer picture of the historical moment of capitalism from the market’s vantage point.
  4. There was Marx’s own truth, that human conditions under the sway of this market could only be understood by going beyond the market, historicizing it and completing it with a picture of the production process off-stage that made the market possible.

The point that Moten and Harney make, which I think is correct, is that most critical analyses of academic labour identify the problem somewhere amidst the first and second levels of analysis; that is, the problem is (1) the conditions of the labour process (e.g. its precarity and expressions of performativity); or (2) the ideologies which support and maintain that labour process: ‘neoliberalism’.

Clarke’s short article can be read as an attempt to shift the critique away from these relatively superficial levels of analysis, to a more foundational understanding of the problem (3) and its revolutionary, scientific critique (4).

Moten and Harney make this clear, too.

“It would fall to us then first to avoid our talk of a crisis becoming the vulgar knowledge of these conditions. We should avoid taking this practical knowledge and trying to translate it straight into a theory of conditions. Instead we have to take the further step of exploring the theory of conditions already constituted for us. This is what Marx, according to Hall was trying to do with Smith and Ricardo. From there we may be ready to give our own reading. What is important about looking at labor conditions in this way is that we can avoid suggesting that these subjectivities are based on false ideas, and instead see them based on different ways of thinking these conditions. But at the same time, we can avoid building our own politics on folkloric or customary images and practices of the previous generation.”

This section in their article is titled ‘Abstracting Academic Labour’ and it seems to me to be an implicit reference to the method undertaken by Marx, which was to “rise from the abstract to the concrete“.

The danger, as Moten and Harney point out, is that if we only remain attentive to the concrete conditions of the labour process and their ideological counterpart, then we are likely to build a politics which responds to the “vulgar” propaganda of ‘neoliberalism’ and its apparatus rather than being grounded in a more fundamental, immanent critique of “the production process off-stage”; what Marx referred to in his chapter on the ‘Buying and Selling of Labour Power‘, as the “hidden abode of production”. 1

“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.”

Moten and Harney rearticulate this in the context of higher education:

“Away from the public sphere where ideas of higher education, economic expansion and contraction, and citizenship rule, another way of interpreting conditions becomes possible. Those conditions are darker both because they are hidden from the airy world of the public sphere and because they include violent forces like industrialization, central planning, proletarianization, and struggles against capitalist relations. This is to say that another way of understanding this golden age is not so golden, but it may be a way to build a better theory of these working conditions. We might understand the expansion of the university as a key component of the kind of central planning undertaken by the United States in the Cold War, as several recent books make clear. This involved turning the university from an elite support system for American ideology into a central factory for the mass production of that ideology hand in hand with mass production of social and scientific knowledge utilized to further American imperial aims in this period. This meant in turn, the massifying, that is the proletarianization of the workforce involved.”

A ‘golden age’ of individualism?

In an article published last year, I made a similar argument about this expansion of the university, pointing to the gradual process of valorisation within the US academy, which can be divided into four stages:

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

In that article, I also noted the various contradictions within the academy brought about through the increasing efforts to valorise its product over the decades:

“The reproduction of hacking as a form of academic labour took place over many decades as academics and their institutions shifted from an ideal of unproductive, communal science to a more productive, entrepreneurial approach to the production of knowledge.  A such, I view hacking as a peculiar, historically situated form of labour that arose out of the contradictions of the academy: vocation vs. profession; teaching vs. research; basic vs. applied research; research vs. development; private vs. public; war vs. peace; institutional autonomy vs. state dependence; scientific communalism vs. intellectual property.”

One of the contradictions that I missed was that of individual vs. social production of knowledge; that is, the idea(l) of the intellectual craftsperson and the actual social configuration of labour within the university. Moten and Harney make much of this point in their article. This distinction between individual and social, co-operative labour within the academy is at the heart of the problem of capitalist work. Many of us working in the Social Sciences are familiar with C. Wright Mills’ essay, ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship‘, which begins: “To the individual social scientist who feels himself a part of the classic tradition, social science is the practice of a craft.” One of Mills’ concluding points of advice to young academics is: “Stand for the primacy of the individual scholar; stand opposed to the ascendancy of research teams of technicians. Be one mind that is on its own confronting the problems of man and society.”

Moten and Harney develop a critique of this “dream” of ‘intellectual craftsmanship’ and the ‘Golden Age’ it increasingly represents. They do this by discussing craftsmanship as a mode of production in which the individual brings his wares to the market, “where a student or the public could see directly the value of his work, where the author stood behind his work.”

“The fact of the student and the public told the craftsman that he had been gathered with other craftsman, as a kind of class, a class that was distinguished by being neither student nor public, and by the work he produced. And at the same time, that work was responsible for the health of both student and public. Each classroom, each office, and each book held the imprimatur of this individual’s contribution to a healthy public sphere.”

In contrast and opposition to this view of the academic, Moten and Harney focus on the actual practice of academic labour in capitalist society as a collective endeavour:

“Here the tools of academic labor are only useable in common. Work is not only meaningless if others are not also engaged in it, but impossible, their being no tools to use. What is produced is produced as a commodity, it circulates and is realized in publishing, awarding grades, and getting and keeping jobs. Moreover the production, circulation, and realization of this knowledge is not provoked primarily by the professor, but by the students who do most of the work of academic production. And that production, circulation, and realization is itself difficult to sort out. Is a professor lecturing on the history of sociology producing knowledge, circulating it, or even realizing it? Is the student in turn only realizing that knowledge or in fact also producing new knowledge, and circulating this new knowledge. We might call this the disarticulation of knowledge production, and when we put it together with the way professors depend on each other to produce even the most singular work of scholarship we discover a social world of making and sharing knowledge. Now if we take this social world but also give it away, what do we have? This is to say if this social world is not under the control of those who make it social, what conditions obtain? If this world is centrally planned, then exposed to a price-making market, and then once again organized to support that central planning or that market, what kind of abused subjectivity does this produce in the academic worker?”

Moten and Harney are critical of the “vulgar” theorisation of academic labour which views the university as a market, either a romanticised one in which “a special and limited brotherhood” of individuals offer their wares, or that of a centrally planned factory which produces and circulates knowledge as a commodity so as to realise exchange value. Both market-led perspectives, they argue, reveal an internalisation of a production line, “from that golden age when we cared not to see we were part of a centrally planned knowledge factory, to what we might call the internalization of a cybernetics of production.” In our resistance to the university as a factory, this internalisation causes both perspectives to view academic labour as a position rather than an activity.

From being to doing

This is something they argue in their book chapter, ‘Doing Academic Work‘. 2 There, they reiterate their criticism that academics talk (and write) critically about the conditions of their work but also set themselves apart from most other workers in that they disavow both the “mutual interdependence and the sociality of her or his product.” Moten and Harney’s position is that “most professors in the United States are part of the service sector proletariat”.

“There is thus no need to romanticize the rela­tionship between professors and other working people, no need to ago­nize over the right channel for some connection to labor in other forms. The connection is material. Professors as teachers, writers, and research­ers work for someone else producing what is explicitly a commodity as part of a system of industrial capitalism that relies on their surplus labor just as much as it does on the surplus labor of mail carriers, computer technicians, maintenance staff, or marketing specialists. But the subjec­tivity currently produced by academic labor warrants investigation-for clearly, most professors would not see themselves as described in these opening statements.”

In short, they suggest that the subjectivity of academics is one which tends to view academic work as a position, rather than an activity and this leads them to focus not on what it means to be an academic worker but what it means to do academic labour. This focus on the doing or activity of academic labour is the starting point for understanding academic labour as a form of social production that extends both across and outside the academy.

“For although academics can conceive of them­selves socially in their common conditions of work, they cannot, for the most part, conceive of themselves socially in their actual produc­tion. They may have to put up with similar constraints, such as crowded offices, broken copiers, and low salaries, but these are regarded too often as relations to things and not to another person. Politically we could hope that this initial sense of common conditions could lead to a deeper sense of participation in a common production process, one that they them­selves give its particular social nature, as bearers of definite social rela­tions. But neither the recognized conditions around work nor the unrec­ognized conditions of a common production process have been enough for the subjectivity of academic workers to break into a collective agency. In fact, the subjectivity produced by this particular production process cries out for investigation.”

Starting from the point of ‘doing’ as social labour, rather than ‘being’, reminds me of John Holloway’s extensive development of this concept:

“We start from doing. Doing is the basis of any society, including societies based on exploitation. Doing implies power, the power to do, the capacity to do. This power is a social power. The doing of one person implies the (simultaneous or previous) doing of others. Doing is always part of a social flow of doing in which that which has been done by one person is the precondition of the doing of another and the doing of the latter is the development or reproduction of the doing of the former, in which the doing of one flows across time and space into the doing of another and there are no clear boundaries between the doing of one and the doing of another.”

Moten and Harney’s argument points to a possible reason why most critiques of academic labour reside at the level of the labour process fetish, within the discourse of vulgar theory, and concerned with the minutiae of our conditions rather than our abstraction. It is because of the absence of a collective agency among academics, one that is grounded in the common production process of the university as a social, co-operative endeavour, that we remain preoccupied with our individual position in the ‘marketplace of ideas’, over and above the way we reproduce ourselves through an active dependence on other workers and students.

This emphasis on the social, co-operative character of work in the university/factory is not to say that it somehow defies the capitalist mode of production, but rather that it exemplifies it. Recall Marx’s chapter in Capital on ‘Co-operation‘, where he states:

“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.”

Moten and Harney draw from Burawoy’s term of the “social relations in production” rather than the “social relations of production” to underline this point. What is especially interesting about their argument is that this social labour is not simply constituted by academics, but by both academics and students labouring together.

The value form of the teacher-student relation

A key point in their argument is the need to understand the relationship between the production of knowledge, its circulation and its realisation (of value) in the university. To understand this relationship, we must first acknowledge that

“two kinds of products leave the university: knowledge sold directly as know-how, enlightenment, and entertainment, and knowledge embodied in the student-product. Each has an exchange value, but the first product is most easily traced to the orders and invoices of firms and states, by which we mean its value is realized and measured more easily. The second product is tied to the ideological state apparatus where the difficulty of realizing its value in fact propels it.”

Of course, attempts to measure the value of the knowledge embodied in the student product are made through a variety metrics, including graduate incomes and the measure of periods of unemployment, for example. Moten and Harney are right to point out that our compliance in speeding up our productive activity through publishing more articles, editing more books, producing more grant applications and, I would add, accepting a greater ratio of students, all “situate academic labour very squarely in the category of mass production”. As such, I am reminded here of Marx’s analysis of surplus value which showed that

“The value of commodities is in inverse ratio to the productiveness of labour. And so, too, is the value of labour-power, because it depends on the values of commodities.”

The increase in total output is likely, at least initially,  to realise an overall greater amount of surplus value for the university, but when it is the student’s labour power that is being (re)produced, the decrease in the value of their primary commodity is cause for concern.

A key point that Harney and Moten want to make is that in the university, “the production of knowledge seems to have elements of disarticulation right inside it.”

“Consider the following questions: Where is the site of production in the classroom? What is produced? Who pro­duces, who consumes, who circulates? Any answer appears to confuse not only the point of production but also the bearers of labor power by generalizing production through consumption and circulation. The pro­fessor produces the lecture but tries to realize its value in the quality of the questions he receives after. The students consume the lecture but generate questions. The professor circulates already produced knowledge that he has consumed for his lecture notes. The students produce knowl­edge on exams and circulate the knowledge of the professor through these exams. The professor consumes the knowledge of the student on the midterm exam in order to produce a new exam at year’s end. At no point is any producer not simultaneously a consumer, and at no point is production not subject to the immediacy of circulation. Most important, if value is being realized in any of this circulation, then it is being real­ized in all of this circulation. The argument could thus be made that both professor and student (not to mention the absent labor of the graduate tutor) are coworkers in the production of knowledge, and that all are involved realizing the value of this work. Such an argument would chal­lenge our sense of academic labor, however, in that it would acknowledge that the majority of academic workers, and of surplus labor, comes from students and not from faculty, returning us to the point that if academic labor is an activity and not a position, there is no reason to look for it only among academics. It also has implications for the politics of production, of course, transforming students from raw material worked upon by fac­ulty to workers at the point of production. But in this argument, is the alleged circulation and realization of value during production any differ­ent from steelworkers talking to one another about making steel? It is. In academic labor there is often no product outside of the discourse about that product. This is so all the time in teaching, and often in research. Where a distinct product is visible in a new chemical compound or piece of machinery or a new human relations model, once again it escapes a purely discursive life by its articulation with other sites of production where its value can be conventionally realized.”

This analysis of production and consumption within the university is not concerned with the conditions of work, nor the details of the labour process itself. It is concerned with understanding the circuit of capital in the form of the knowledge commodity and how the labour power of academics and students is the source of the value of the university’s product. I am reminded of Marx’s notes 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.”

This seems to complement Marx’s later assertion that value is only realised in the form of exchange value and exchange value necessarily requires both a producer and a consumer who possess commodities they wish to exchange, relative and equivalent to each others’. There is no value in a commodity that is not consumed. In fact, there is no commodity when the product or service only acquires a use-value and not an exchange value, too. In order for value to be expressed through exchange, Marx argued that there has to be both relative and an equivalent forms of value in the equation:

“The relative form and the equivalent form are two intimately connected, mutually dependent and inseparable elements of the expression of value; but, at the same time, are mutually exclusive, antagonistic extremes – i.e., poles of the same expression. They are allotted respectively to the two different commodities brought into relation by that expression.”

Marx goes on to show how in the simplest form of exchange, commodity A is relative to its equivalent, commodity B. The value of the use-value A (what it is worth) is realised in the exchange of its equivalent B. Likewise, the equation can be reversed so that the value of the use-value B is realised in the exchange of its equivalent A. In both equations, the exchange value is the form of value of each commodity. I will elaborate on this important point another time [here it is], but needless to say, Moten and Harney provide a very useful way in to thinking about the process of knowledge production in terms of Marx’s labour theory of value. They do not attempt a full explication of it, but enough to suggest that the labour power of the academic and the labour power of the student must be dialectically analysed.

What is especially interesting to me about Moten and Harney’s line of argument in this book chapter is how in some respects, it preceded our work on Student as Producer, and on one occasion, they actually use the term themselves:

“Many of us know academic workers who are dedicated to helping students analyze and critique society where the object of that critique is actually existing capi­talism. The academic workers are admirable for their faith in the human nature of these students and for their understanding of the subject of any such critique (what we would call socialism). Such workers are capable of viewing students as a social group, based on age, race, income, or their superficial place in the education system. They may attempt to teach anti­ racism, feminism, anti-imperialism, or pacifism. But it is necessary to be rigorous in critiquing the analysis that informs this position. The production of knowledge requires the student as producer. The student must manipulate the raw material of thought. She must expend labor time in this process. She must and she does add something to the product that the academic worker has not, no matter how insignificant, for the com­modity to be formed. She is, therefore, a worker in the production of the teaching commodity. Now it is possible for an academic worker to hope for an agency from students not based on their position as workers, as one can hope for such agency among people in general. But it does not seem to us possible to devise a strategy for that agency which does not recognize, first, that the very act of strategizing implicates the students as workers and, second, that any strategy ignorant of these material con­ditions of production is at least incomplete.”

Now, this is very interesting, not least because it largely concurs with Student as Producer as it has been developed by my colleague Mike Neary, but also because I think Moten and Harney’s analysis of academic labour helps enrich Student as Producer as a critique of academic labour and the idea of the university. They argue persuasively that academics are continually “repelling” the embodied “threat” that the student’s labour power is ultimately equivalent to their own in the production of knowledge, and this resistance is undertaken by “holding steady” the moments of circulation and realisation “as categories of individuality.” In this way, academics define students as consumers in the exchange relation. It is, in effect, an act of hypostatisation where the academic isolates their work and concretises it as an intellectual craft, and in turn, isolates the student as an individual consumer of the academic’s knowledge product. Turning the student worker back into the student is an attempt at creating “distance and difference” between the two individuals, when in fact, in the capitalist university, both academic and student are relative and equivalent forms of the labour power commodity, each with a concrete and abstract character. Moten and Harney discuss all of this using the example of affirmative action, but I think that what they are implicitly attempting to reveal is Marx’s labour theory of value in action and our constant attempts to deny its inhumane reality where, as Holloway states, humanity “exists in the form of being denied” (Holloway 2002:213). To assert one’s individual identity as an academic is to try to assert one’s dignity. To extend an analysis of academic labour only so far as the conditions of that labour is an understandable outcome of trying to preserve some dignity within an inhumane process of real abstraction.

But it is not enough.

 

Financialising the university: What is to be done?

Andrew McGettigan concludes his article on financialisation and higher education with:

“I am frequently asked, ‘what then should be done?’ My answer is that unless academics rouse themselves and contest the general democratic deficit from within their own institutions and unless we have more journalists taking up these themes locally and nationally, then very little can be done. We are on the cusp of something more profound than is indicated by debates around the headline fee level; institutions and sector could make moves that will be difficult, if not impossible, to undo, whether it is negotiated independence for the elite or shedding charitable status the better to access private finance.”

This is a similar conclusion to that of Brenna Bhandar writing on the LRB blog:

“If there is anything alluring about property as a form, it lies in its mutability, its capacity to be something other than private and exclusive. It is in all our interests to support students, academic and support staff, outsourced cleaners and others in their struggles to reconfigure the ownership of the university, and seize democratic forms of governance the better to create and distribute the social goods that we produce collectively, in spite of current government policies and management strategies.”

There are three responses to this that I can suggest:

  • Conversion: Constitute universities on co-operative values and principles. Read Dan Cook’s report: ‘Realising the co-operative university‘.
  • Dissolution: Radicalise the university from the inside, starting with the relationship between academics and students. Read about Student as Producer.
  • Creation: Build experiments in higher education outside the financialised sector. Read about the Social Science Centre.