Higher and higher education

“The university that we need to create is not another institutional form of higher education, the University of Knowledge. It is, rather, the unbounded limit of what we know about ourselves, that is higher and higher education, which can emerge in any number of sustainable and life enhancing forms.”

Source: Neary, Mike (2012) Beyond teaching in public: the university as a form of social knowing. In: Towards teaching in public: reshaping the modern university. Continuum. ISBN 9781441124791

The ‘Bourgeois University’ and self-management of knowledge production

Extract from Ernest Mandel’s speech (1970) The Changing Role of the Bourgeois University. Via Krystian Szadkowski.

#solidarity to UCL, Goldsmiths, KCL, LSE, UALMaagdenhuis

The university can be the cradle of a real revolution.

We must immediately include a warning in the argument. Whenever we speak of ‘the university,’ we mean the people of the university collectively, that is, the teachers and the students. We do not mean the university as an institution.

As an institution, the university is incorporated in the existing social structure. Students, professors, and workers cannot finance and maintain any universities in the final analysis as long as the social surplus value is not collectivized, that is, as long as we live in a capitalist society.

In the long run the university as an institution remains bound with golden chains to the power of the ruling class. Without a radical transformation of society itself the university cannot undergo any lasting radical transformation.

But what is impossible for the university as an institution is possible for students as individuals and in groups. And what is possible for students as individuals and groups can, on the collective level, temporarily emerge as a possibility for the university as a whole.

As a permanent institution, the university remains subject to the control of the ruling class. But wherever the struggle of the university collective for self-management assumes such scope that a temporary breakthrough in this area occurs, then for a short period the university becomes a ‘school of self-management’ for the entire people. This was what happened in the Sorbonne in Paris in May 1968; this is what happened, among other place, in Chicago in May 1970. These examples were extremely limited in scope and duration. But under favourable circumstances the attraction of such examples for the broad masses can be very promising.

In a certain sense this is the central problem of ‘programmed social change’. Programming for whom and by whom? That is the question. The argument advanced by the opponents of democratic self-management in the universities as well as in the plants deals with competence. Society is divided into ‘competent’ bosses and ‘incompetent’ workers, as they see it. Let us leave aside the question of whether the ‘competence’ of the bosses is such as to justify their retaining the function of decision-making. Whenever we compare this proclaimed competence with the results, at least insofar as society is concerned, then there are at least a few reasons for doubt.

The decisive argument against this concept, however, is not affected by such a value judgment. With the development of computers and the functionalized university, a system is emerging in which the control of levers of economic power, the concentration of economic power goes hand in hand with a growing monopolization of access to a no less horrible concentration of information.

Because the same social minority keeps a tight grip on power and information while scientific knowledge becomes more and more specialized and fragmented, a growing hiatus is developing between detailed professional competence and the concentration of information that makes it possible to make centralized strategic decisions.

The members of the board of directors of a multinational corporation can leave thousands of small decisions to ‘competent professionals.’ But since the directors alone have the final outcome of the information-gathering process at their disposal, they alone are ‘competent’ to make the central strategic decisions.

Self-management overcomes this hiatus by giving the masses the necessary information to equip them to understand what is involved in the strategic central decisions. Any member of the mass who is ‘competent’ in this or that detail plays a participating role in making these decisions whenever cooperation and not competition among individuals is the social norm.”

All power to the communes!

The university as a hackerspace

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

In this paper I will argue for a different way of understanding the emergence of hacker culture. In doing so, I will outline 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.

I will argue 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.

Finally, and most importantly, I will ask conference delegates the questions: Is hacking in the university still a possibility? Can a university contain (intellectually, politically, practically) a hackerspace? If so, what does it look like? How would it work? I will attempt to answer some of these questions based on recent efforts at the University of Lincoln to reproduce the ‘university as a hackerspace’, building on the pedagogical and political project, Student as Producer.

Below are some slides from a recent presentation I gave to colleagues at Lincoln.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Postone’s analysis of capitalism, based on his reading of Marx, is useful to us for a number of reasons:1

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

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

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

The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education

With Mike Neary

In this chapter, we set out to provide an overview of recent critical responses to the corporatisation of higher education and the configuration of the student as consumer. We also discuss the relationship between the core activities of teaching and research and reflect on both nineteenth century discourse and more recent efforts to re-establish the university as a liberal humanist institution, where teaching and research are equal and fundamental aspects of academic life. While recognizing recent efforts which acknowledge and go some way to addressing the need for enquiry-based learning and constructivist models of student participation, we argue that a more critical approach is necessary to promote change at an institutional level. This critical approach looks at the wider social, political and economic context beyond the institution and introduces the work of Benjamin and other Marxist writers who have argued that a critique of the social relations of capitalist production is central to understanding and remodelling the role of the university and the relationship between academic and student. 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. An exemplar alternative organizing principle is already proliferating in universities in the form of open, networked collaborative initiatives which are not intrinsically anti-capital but, fundamentally, ensure the free and creative use of research materials. Initiatives such as Science Commons, Open Knowledge and Open Access, are attempts by academics and others to lever the Internet to ensure that research output is free to use, re-use and distribute without legal, social or technological restriction (www.opendefinition.org). Through these efforts, the organizing principle is being redressed creating a teaching, learning and research environment which promotes the values of openness and creativity, engenders equity among academics and students and thereby offers an opportunity to reconstruct the student as producer and academic as collaborator. In an environment where knowledge is free, 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.

Published in The Future of Higher Education: Policy, Pedagogy and the Student Experience

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