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)http://socialsciencecentre.org.uk/blog/2016/05/05/isrf-funded-project-on-co-operative-higher-education/ 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)http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/23051/ 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

~~~

 

References   [ + ]

Students for Co-operation Winter Conference

Students are increasingly organising themselves around co-operative values and principles, providing goods, services and housing to their members. There are a growing number of student housing co-ops (in Sheffield, Birmingham, Edinburgh…), an emerging national body of student housing co-operatives, a national federation of student co-ops, and a new network of young co-operators led by AltGen, an organisation that supports young people to set up their own worker co-operatives.

Highlights from Young Co-operators Weekend in Bradford from Blake House on Vimeo.

Students for Co-operation are holding their national winter conference at the University of East Anglia, February 12-14th, and I will be attending again to jointly run a workshop on co-operative higher education. Mike Neary and I attended a national meeting last June to run a workshop on co-operative higher education at the start of our ISRF-funded research project. Now approaching the end of the project and having run five more workshops on different themes relating to co-operative higher education since then, it will be good to return and discuss some of our findings.

SfC Conf Agenda
Click to enlarge

From research student to academic: thinking about and preparing for academic work

At the request of students, I’m running a session at our doctoral study school next week on the ‘transition’ (that makes it sound smoother than it actually is) from doctoral student to an academic career. It’s allowed me to read a number of articles, reports and guides that are essentially talking about academic labour.

Below is some reading I’ve suggested to students and would recommend to anyone thinking about an academic career or giving advice to those thinking about such a career. In addition to discussing the readings, we will of course be talking about writing CVs, completing job applications, how to read a job description and preparing for interviews. In my session, I wanted to go beyond the standard ‘careers advice’ and ‘surgery’, and use research and the writings of academics to inform our understanding of academic life.

Personally, I find there’s a lot to like about the job, but the research and individual accounts show that increasingly it’s an intensive, extensive, and sometimes harmful career to pursue. I see and have felt that, too. Structurally, the trajectory of academic work and life will be very difficult to change, (although I’m working on it), but as the Hortensii group make clear, there are ways that we can be more generous and kind to doctoral students and to colleagues; especially to the many individuals already living insecure and highly mobile lives.

I have collected a lot more than this, so if you’re also faced with having to discuss or research this, get in touch and I’ll send you what I have.

Is student learning a form of labour?

My question is: In undertaking a degree, does a student exchange their labour power for anything? i.e. Is student learning/studying a form of labour? These are just some initial notes. Comments welcome.

Quoting from Chapter 6 of Capital: ‘The Sale and Purchase of Labour-Power’. Translation of online version differs from Penguin Classics/Fowkes version below. My commentary in [parentheses].

“We mean by labour-power, or labour-capacity, the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being, capabilities which he sets in motion whenever he produces a use-value of any kind.”

“But in order that the owner of money may find labour-power on the market as a commodity [from the standpoint of the buyer], various conditions must first be fulfilled. In and for itself, the exchange of commodities implies no other relations of dependence than those which result from its own nature. On this assumption, labour-power can appear on the market as a commodity only if, and in so far as, its possessor, the individual whose labour-power it is [now, the standpoint of the seller – it appears on the market as a commodity but was already a commodity as defined above: as the capability/capacity to produce use-values], offers it for sale or sells it as a commodity. In order that its possessor may sell it as a commodity [implies that labour power is a commodity if the owner is in a position to sell it – not that they do sell it], he must have it at his disposal, he must be the free proprietor of his own labour-capacity, hence of his person. [As the ‘free proprietor’ of his own labour-capacity, the student can choose to give her labour power away for free – sell it for nothing – and even pay the owner of another commodity to assist in enhancing her labour power through education; this is rational under the given circumstances] He and the owner of money meet in the market, and enter into relations with each other on a footing of equality as owners of commodities [money and labour power are both commodities prior to the act of exchange – they both have a value which is measured in socially necessary labour time], with the sole difference that one is a buyer, the other a seller; both are therefore equal in the eyes of the law [this remains true of the student and the teacher]. For this relation to continue, the proprietor of labour-power must always sell it for a limited period only, for if he were to sell it in a lump, once and for all, he would be selling himself, converting himself from a free man into a slave, from an owner of a commodity into a commodity. [The student is an owner of a commodity, not simply a commodity, so they are ‘free’ to dispose of it as they see fit] He must constantly treat his labour-power as his own property, his own commodity, and he can do this only by placing it at the disposal of the buyer, i.e. handing it over to the buyer for him to consume, for a definite period of time, temporarily. In this way he manages both to alienate his labour­ power and to avoid renouncing his rights of ownership over it. [The student alienates their labour power for a given period during their education and then withdraws it at the end of their education so as to sell it/alienate it on the labour market for a potentially higher price than before their education. We are regularly told that the income of a graduate will be more than the income of a non-graduate over the person’s lifetime and as such, the student will be ‘paid’ for their education].

The second essential condition which allows the owner of money to find labour-power in the market as a commodity is this [again, from the standpoint of the buyer], that the possessor of labour-power [now, standpoint of seller], instead of being able to sell commodities in which his labour has been objectified, must rather be compelled to offer for sale as a commodity [it’s already a commodity before being actually sold – it takes the form of a commodity, regardless of what price/wage it fetches if any] that very labour-power which exists only in his living body [prior to sale, it is objectified as something for sale but not yet alienated; once purchased it is objectified and alienated].

In order that a man may be able to sell commodities other than his labour-power, he must of course possess means of production, such as raw materials, instruments of labour, etc. No boots can be made without leather. He requires also the means of subsistence. Nobody – not even a practitioner of Zukunftsmusik – can live on the products of the future, or on use-values whose production has not yet been completed; just as on the first day of his appearance on the world’s stage, man must still consume every day, before and while he produces. If products are produced as commodities, they must be sold after they have been produced [same with labour power – it must first and always be (re)produced in order to sell], and they can only satisfy the producer’s needs after they have been sold. The time necessary for sale must be counted as well as the time of production. [time studying for the student is (re)productive time as they enhance their labour power]

For the transformation of money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must find the free worker available on the commodity-market [note: not ‘labour market’ since labour-power is simply a commodity, albeit a ‘special’ commodity; the labour market is a commodity market]; and this worker must be free in the double sense that as a free individual he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity [the student is ‘free’ to dispose of their labour power in whatever way it may benefit them], and that, on the other hand, he has no other commodity for sale, i.e. he is rid of them, he is free of all the objects needed for the realization of his labour-power. [the student is ‘free’ of the means to enhance their labour power in the way that they deem necessary. Should the means for self-education and social validation become available to them, they may freely choose not to go to university e.g. self-directed learning]

… In order to become a commodity, the product must cease to be produced as the immediate means of subsistence of the producer himself. [here, referring to the production of food, shelter, etc. Historically, such products of labour were not commodities. Higher education enhances labour power; individuals can subsist without it]

… The appearance of products as commodities requires a level of development of the division of labour within society such that the separation of use-value from exchange-value, a separation which first begins with barter, has already been completed. [what was subsistence labour becomes, in an advanced capitalist society, the labour power commodity due to the division of labour/private property]

… This peculiar commodity, labour-power, must now be examined more closely. Like all other commodities it has a value. How is that value determined?

The value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this specific article. In so far as it has value, it represents no more than a definite quantity of the average social labour objectified in it. [education adds value, measured by average socially necessary labour time] Labour-power exists only as a capacity of the living individual. Its production consequently presupposes his existence. Given the existence of the individual, the production of labour-power consists in his reproduction of himself or his maintenance. For his maintenance he requires a certain quantity of the means of subsistence. Therefore the labour-time necessary for the production of labour-power is the same as that necessary for the production of those means of subsistence; in other words, the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of its owner. [hence exploitation being the production of value by labour-power above – surplus to – the necessary labour of the individual] However, labour-power becomes a reality only by being expressed; it is activated only through labour. But in the course of this activity, i.e. labour, a definite quantity of human muscle, nerve, brain, etc. is expended, and these things have to be replaced. Since more is expended, more must be received. If the owner of labour-power works today, tomorrow he must again be able to repeat the same process in the same conditions as regards health and strength. His means of subsistence must therefore be sufficient to maintain him in his normal state as a working individual. [a student must also meet their means of subsistence, the only way being through the sale of their labour power or from gifts, loans, grants, etc. During their education, some students work, most take loans, some use savings, etc. By and large, their subsistence is either based on the sale of past labour power (savings) or future labour power (loans). Full-time study represents a continuity of the expenditure of labour power, despite a suspension of immediate payment for it]

… In contrast, therefore, with the case of other commodities, the determination of the value of labour-power contains a historical and moral element. [the individual is not entirely ‘free’ – the value of their labour power is determined for them and thus the means by which to live] Nevertheless, in a given country at a given period, the average amount of the means of subsistence necessary for the worker is a known datum.

… In order to modify the general nature of the human organism in such a way that it acquires skill and dexterity in a given branch of industry, and becomes labour-power of a developed and specific kind, a special education or training is needed, and this in turn costs an equivalent in commodities of a greater or lesser amount. The costs of education vary according to the degree of complexity of the labour-power required. These expenses (exceedingly small in the case of ordinary labour-power) form a part of the total value spent in producing it. [higher education (re)produces labour power of a developed and specific kind and this has a cost which must be met with an equivalence of other commodities, usually money, though it could be met by an aggregation of different sources]

The value of labour-power can be resolved into the value of a definite quantity of the means of subsistence. [like any individual, a student’s labour power is worth the value of subsistence. How they achieve an exchange for that value is a different matter] It therefore varies with the value of the means of subsistence, i.e. with the quantity of labour-time required to produce them.

… Some of the means of subsistence, such as food and fuel, are consumed every day, and must therefore be replaced every day. Others, such as clothes and furniture, last for longer periods and need to be replaced only at longer intervals. Articles of one kind must be bought or paid for every day, others every week, others every quarter and so on. But in whatever way the sum total of these outlays may be spread over the year, they must be covered by the average income, taking one day with another. [people can subsist for periods of time without the sale of their labour power e.g. loans, charity, but generally speaking these are interim periods made possible by hoards of money – savings/loans – which represent the value of their past/future labour power]

… The ultimate or minimum limit of the value of labour-power is formed by the value of the commodities which have to be supplied every day to the bearer of labour-power, the man, so that he can renew his life-process. That is to say, the limit is formed by the value of the physically indispensable means of subsistence. [again, the student’s subsidized life – gifts, grants, etc. – lessens the value of labour power required for subsistence to the point that its necessary sale can effectively be suspended or covered through part-time work] If the price of labour-power falls to this minimum, it falls below its value, since under such circumstances it can be maintained and developed only in a crippled state, and the value of every commodity is determined by the labour-time required to provide it in its normal quality.

… When we speak of capacity for labour, we do not abstract from the necessary means of subsistence. On the contrary, their value is expressed in its value. If his capacity for labour remains unsold, this is of no advantage to the worker. He will rather feel it to be a cruel nature-imposed necessity that his capacity for labour has required for its production a definite quantity of the means of subsistence, and will continue to require this for its reproduction. Then, like Sismondi, he will discover that ‘the capacity for labour … is nothing unless it is sold’. [A capacity for labour has to be (re)produced one way or another. If it’s not sold today, it must be sold tomorrow or whenever charity/loans are absent. The non-sale of labour power doesn’t negate its existence as a use-value that has an exchange-value i.e. a commodity]

One consequence of the peculiar nature of labour-power as a commodity is this, that it does not in reality pass straight away into the hands of the buyer on the conclusion of the contract between buyer and seller. Its value, like that of every other commodity, is already determined before it enters into circulation, for a definite quantity of social labour has been spent on the production of the labour-power. But its use-value consists in the subsequent exercise of that power. The alienation of labour-power and its real manifestation i.e. the period of its existence as a use-value, do not coincide in time. But in those cases in which the formal alienation by sale of the use-value of a commodity is not simultaneous with its actual transfer to the buyer, the money of the buyer serves as means of payment.

In every country where the capitalist mode of production prevails, it is the custom not to pay for labour-power until it has been exercised for the period fixed by the contract, for example, at the end of each week. In all cases, therefore, the worker advances the use-value of his labour-power to the capitalist. He lets the buyer consume it before he receives payment of the price. Everywhere the worker allows credit to the capitalist. That this credit is no mere fiction is shown not only by the occasional loss of the wages the worker has already advanced, when a capitalist goes bankrupt, but also by a series of more long-lasting consequences. [in the case of the student who receives a loan it is still credit at work but the other way around. The lender allows credit to the student so as to enhance their labour power based on a contract to repay the loan. The contract is based on the student being a private individual who possesses the labour power commodity and therefore is likely to repay the loan. If the student is unable to pay back the loan on the agreed terms, then the lender suffers the consequences]

… Whether money serves as a means of purchase or a means of payment, this does not alter the nature of the exchange of commodities. [student loans and wages for academic labour are both means of payment rather than purchase] The price of the labour-power is fixed by the contract, although it is not realized till later, like the rent of a house. The labour-power is sold, although it is paid for only at a later period. [reinforces the idea that money does not need to be exchanged directly or simultaneously for the expenditure of labour power as a commodity]

It will therefore be useful, if we want to conceive the relation in its pure form, to presuppose for the moment that the possessor of labour-power, on the occasion of each sale, immediately receives the price stipulated in the contract. [as is often the case, Marx is discussing capitalism in its ideal or ‘pure form’ so as to understand its fundamental workings. On the surface, things are more complex – a ‘noisy sphere’ – and it is the job of theory to abstract and bring clarity to complexity]

We now know the manner of determining the value paid by the owner of money to the owner of this peculiar commodity, labour­power. The use-value which the former gets in exchange manifests itself only in the actual utilization, in the process of the consumption of the labour-power. The money-owner [i.e. capital represented by the State and the University] buys everything necessary for this process, such as raw material, in the market, and pays the full price for it. The process of the consumption of labour­power is at the same time the production process of commodities and of surplus-value [the university is a means of production]. The consumption of labour-power is completed, as in the case of every other commodity, outside the market or the sphere of circulation. Let us therefore, in company with the owner of money and the owner of labour-power, leave this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone, and follow them into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there hangs the notice ‘No admittance except on business’. Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is itself produced. The secret of profit-making must at last be laid bare. [the next chapter explains the valorization process which I am not concerned with here. I just want to establish the existence or not of the value-form of the commodity of student labour power]

The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom,because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labour ­power, are determined only by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law. Their contract is the final result in which their joint will finds a common legal expression. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to his own advantage. The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interest of each. Each pays heed to himself only, and no one worries about the others. And precisely for that reason, either in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an omniscient providence, they all work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal, and in the common interest. [this paragraph represents the ‘vulgar’ view of capitalist social relations from the ‘noisy’ perspective of the sphere of exchange, i.e. not Marx’s view.]

When we leave this sphere of simple circulation or the exchange of commodities, which provides the ‘free-trader vulgaris’ with his views, his concepts and the standard by which he judges the society of capital and wage-labour, a certain change takes place, or so it appears, in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He who was previously the money-owner now strides out in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his worker. The one smirks self-importantly and is intent on business; the other is timid and holds back, like someone who has brought his own hide to market and now has nothing else to expect but – a tanning.”

[when students study at university and learn from/study with academics, they do so through the exchange of their labour: the commodity of labour power]

Student debt linked to the value of academic labour?

Andrew McGettigan has posted a useful analysis of the government’s ‘plans’ for financing higher education. What struck me was his last remark:

“In immediate policy terms, OBR assumes that tuition fees will rise with inflation from 2016-17, and then in line with earnings from 2019-20. As they have emphasised in previous years, without the link to earnings (which are projected to rise faster than inflation in the long-term), university income would be eroded owing the labour-intensive nature of HE.” (Andrew’s emphasis)

The way I read this is that from 2019, the interests of students and academics will be set against each other in a way they have not been in conflict before: Student debt (tuition fees) will be linked to the rise in the median value of UK labour power, which includes waged academics.

In the UK, the price of labour power (i.e. wage) has historically risen faster than inflation and therefore the cost of running a labour intensive university rises accordingly. Until 2013, the increase in fees payable by students was periodic, rising 200% from £1000 in 1997 to £3000 in 2006, with tuition income supplemented by state grants via general taxation. During that time inflation rose about 26% and earnings rose about 28%. (Had £1000 tuition fees risen with inflation since 1997, they would be about £1600 today).

If the income for a university (largely tuition fees) is set against inflation as it is expected to be for 2016-17, the main type of costs (wages) is expected to rise more than the main source of income (fees) and over time the university would gradually get poorer. It’s unsustainable under our current funding regime. In this sense, the change might protect academic jobs in contrast to the current arrangement that increasingly puts them at risk. Of course, the idea of whether any of the current economic paradigm of growth is sustainable is questionable in itself. See Michael Roberts here and here for a response to that…

On the one hand, individuals who will be or are students from 2019 naturally want any growth in their debt to remain low relative to inflation – it’s not in their interest for the price of their education/degree/experience to be set higher than the rate of inflation (arguably, debt is not in their interest, full stop). On the other hand, workers, such as academics want any growth in their earnings to be high relative to inflation so that real wages are high.

So, it seems to me that if the assumption that fees will be tied to earnings is true, then a conflict of interest between students and academics is introduced that currently doesn’t exist. Although the change will help create a form of equivalence between income and outgoings for the institution, it creates a situation where the academic effectively says to the student: “As my wages go up, so do your fees” (or “as my value goes up, so does your indenture”), instead of “As the cost of living goes up, so do your fees.”

That workers are forced into a position of having competing interests among themselves is fundamental to capitalism, but this latest prediction struck me as reinforcing a dysfunctional relationship between students and academics.

Cinétracts. Revolutionary filmmaking

The Ciné-Tracts [1968] project was undertaken by a number of French directors as a means of taking direct revolutionary action during and after the events of May 1968. Contributions were made by Godard, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and others during this period. Each of the Ciné-Tracts consists of 100 feet of 16mm black and white silent film shot at 24 FPS, equalling a projection-time of 2 minutes and 50 seconds. The films were made available for purchase at the production cost, which at the time was fifty francs.

As part of the prescription for the making of the films, the director was to self-produce, self-edit, be the cinematographer, ensuring that each film was shot in one day. Godard had undergone a series of encounters on the barricades during the ‘Langlois Affair’ in February of 1968, and during May was seen actively involved in labour marches, photographing the riots in the Latin Quarter. He also took time to shoot some material at the University of Paris campus at Nanterre.

Source: Cinétracts

I first learned of the Cinétracts through Abé Mark Nornes, whose class I attended during my time in Ann Arbor. On his course, Nornes discussed the documentaries of Ogawa Shinsuke (and later wrote the only book in English about him) and I spent hours watching those superb films about Ogawa’s film collective living and working in rural Japan. I really wish they were available on DVD. Nornes also put me on to Chris Marker and said that Marker, Godard and other French filmmakers had made a series of ‘Cinétracts’ which they distributed to Ogawa in Japan and in return Ogawa sent them his films of the student-worker struggle against the development of Narita airport during the same period of the late 1960s. I think I have that story right.

At any rate, the Japanese film class with Nornes, which was not directly related to the rest of my degree in Buddhism (the wonder of the liberal arts model), had me watching bootleg copies of Ogawa and Marker for much of my last summer in the USA. I left to go to live in rural Japan for three years, where, in my spare time, I would run my own small Cinematheque.

Some of Godard’s Cinétracts are in the British Film Institute’s archive, where I later worked as a film archivist (and met my wife), and I see that someone has done us all a favour and uploaded a compilation to YouTube.

This is revolutionary filmmaking, not just its content, but also its scale and form. Godard used still images to compose his Cinétract. Six years earlier, Marker had used this technique in La Jetée.