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!

Research and resistance

Below are some notes for something I’m writing but have decided not to use, mainly because I’m relying too heavily on Postone’s extensive though singular critique of Habermas. I originally wrote it reflecting on the ‘Seven principles towards a strategy for scholar activism’ as set out by The Autonomous Geographies Collective. One of the principles (#4) is ‘Be aware of our own action research footprint’ and it got me thinking about my work on the SSC as ‘action research’. What interests me is that Kemmis, one of the main theorists of action research, is grounding the latest development of his theory in the ‘communicative action’ of Habermas, who Moishe Postone pulls apart through his reading of Marx. So there’s something to be worked out here if ‘action research’ informed by critical theory, is used to describe aspects of my own research. 

I want to reflect on the Social Science Centre as an ‘action research’ project, conscious that while it is beyond the university, it has been and continues to be a persistent and ever present part of my research inside the University of Lincoln. As such, the SSC might be understood to form part of my ‘action research footprint’ according to the broad definition given by Carr and Kemmis.

“Action research is simply a form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices, their understanding of these practices, and the situations in which the practices are carried out.” (Carr and Kemmis 1986: 162)

Although we have never collectively defined our work as action research, members of the SSC are continuously engaged in the type of ‘self-reflective enquiry’ described by Carr and Kemmis, not with the aim of producing a ‘research outcome’ but so as “to improve the rationality and justice of [our] own practices, [our] understanding of these practices, and the situations in which the practices are carried out”. For myself, it is a form of “prefigurative practice” understood in the way that I discuss in Winn (2015) and also accords with the sixth principle of scholar activism of ‘being the change we want to see’. Yet the fourth and six principles of scholar activism listed above are not adequately developed to correctly convey the way I conceive the Social Science Centre: it is action research by default not by design; it is prefigurative practice but grounded in a negative critique; but neither is it, for me, the practice of resistance.

As with our pedagogical approach, the SSC as a ‘participatory action research project’ is informed by a critique of the contradictory relationship between labour and capital and the emancipatory potential inherent in the commodity-producing form of labour. From this position, labour is understood dialectically as both socially constituted and mediating (Postone, 1993) and so the ‘methods’ of our ‘research’ are understood to be constituted by our immanent social conditions as well as prefigurative of the emancipatory potential of our collective work. There is no place outside the totality of capital and its determinate social forms.

In terms of being ‘critical, participatory action research’, the Social Science Centre aligns with Kemmis’ recent definition (2008). Critical participatory action research is:

  1. Participatory and collective research to achieve effective­ historical consciousness in and of practice as praxis
  2. Research for critical (self-) reflection
  3. Research that opens communicative space
  4. Research to transform reality
  5. Research with a practical aim
  6. Research with emancipatory aims

No-one would deny the importance of needing a safe communicative space – indeed the SSC is just that – yet Kemmis’ definition draws heavily from Habermas’ theory of ‘communicative action’ which is achieved through the ‘intersubjective’ social relations of the project’s participants. For Habermas, intersubjectivity is linguistically grounded:

“As historical and social beings we find ourselves always already in a linguistically structured life­ world. In the forms of communication through which we reach an understanding with one another about something in the world and about ourselves, we encounter a transcending power.” (Habermas quoted in Kemmis, 2008, 128)

From this standpoint, Kemmis defines ‘critical’ in terms of “the quality of the argument, and the ways people participate in it.” (129) Thus critical participatory action research is ultimately reduced to “the conversation”, which is “all we have and all we will ever have”. (129) Unfortunately, this is a mystifying and pessimistic theory of action, derived from a transhistorical conception of subjectivity, which uproots the possibility of emancipation from any historical and material reality. As Postone (1993) has argued, Habermas’ theory of communicative action (and therefore any derivative theory such as Kemmis’), has replaced Marx’s historically specific, socially constituting category of labour in capitalism with a transhistorical theory of communication.

According to Postone, Habermas understands labour only in a technical sense as ‘instrumental action’ and argues that a theory of knowledge that rests on such a category of labour is an instrumentalist theory of knowledge. (1993, 228) In my own work, I have discussed at length Marx’s theory of labour, referring to Marx’s original work as well as that of Postone’s interpretation. It seems that Habermas understands labour not as having a double concrete and abstract character, but is simply concrete labour. As Postone has shown, this has been a common misunderstanding since Marx’s time which has affected the tradition of Critical Theory from Horkheimer to Habermas. Whereas Marx and consequently Postone offer a theory of social constitution, mediation and synthesis through the double form of labour, Habermas looks elsewhere, to a theory of linguistics, to explain the interaction among humans and between humans and nature. Postone makes clear the implications of such an approach:

“If the process of social constitution by labor does indeed specify capitalism, then to project this mode of constitution transhistorically (as traditional Marxism has), or to replace it with an equally transhistorical scheme of the existence of two separate but interdependent spheres (labor and interaction, instrumental and communicative action) is to obscure the specificity of commodity-determined labor and, hence, of what characterizes capitalism. More generally, the methodological and epistemological implications of Marx’s categorial analysis of capitalism raise serious questions about any attempt to develop a social theory on the basis of a set of categories presumed to be applicable generally to the history of the human species.” (1993, 231-2)

Postone argues that Habermas has misunderstood Marx’s labour theory of value and the crucial distinction between material wealth and value as a form of social wealth derived from the corresponding dual categories of concrete and abstract labour. Marx’s labour theory of value is not simply a theory of the instrumentality of economics but a theory of emancipation which shows how the productive capacity and potential of labour in capitalism contains the possibility of its own overcoming. Although capitalism is a totalizing system of social relations, it is fundamentally based on the inherent contradiction in commodity producing labour, giving rise to the possibility of critique and emancipation.

Habermas reads Marx’s labour theory of value as one of historical evolution rather than historically specific to capitalism and sees labour as a technical activity rather than a socially constituting and mediating category. Contrary to this, Postone’s reading of Marx shows that the dual character of commodity-determined labour is a historically specific mode of social constitution which “underlies the automatic regulation of social life in capitalism.” (236) Postone argues that Habermas identifies ‘communicative action’ as existing apart from the realm of capitalism through which critique is made possible:

“as a result, the critique apprehends capitalism only as pathological and, therefore, must ground itself in a quasi-ontological manner, outside of the social and historical specificity of this form of social life.” (Postone, 1993, 153)

What this points to is that unlike Kemmis’ conclusion that “the conversation” is “all we have and all we will ever have”, Postone argues that labour, or rather the critique of labour, provides the groundwork for an emancipatory theory of knowledge, action and praxis. Participatory action research with emancipatory intent is not so much a case of being ‘critical’ as Kemmis defines it in relation to the “the quality of the argument, and the ways people participate in it” but, rather, all about pursuing a negative critique of and through that which is historically, socially and therefore epistemologically constituting and mediating in capitalism: labour.

This is not a theory of resistance or opposition as such, but rather one that recognizes the immanent possibility generated by the totalizing system of domination itself. Capital’s relentless drive to replace living human labour with dead, alienated labour (machines) points to the abolition of labour (wage work) as the basis of emancipation. The possibility of reducing the socially necessary labour time required in producing value as the form of social wealth is itself evidence that “Capital thus works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production.” (Grundrisse, 700)

Postone shows that an evolutionary theory of intersubjectivity is ultimately restorative of the standpoint of labour as socially constituting and mediating and does not provide the basis of a negative critique of labour which points towards its abolition or overcoming. Emancipatory theories such as Habermas’ theory of communicative action which are set against and somehow outside capital are ultimately theories of resistance to capital and blind to the emancipatory potential inherent in the contradictions of capital. Critical participatory action research as theorised by Kemmis may appear dynamic and dialogical on the surface but its weakness is that it is grounded in a transhistorical, one-dimensional theory of opposition that can offer little more than ameliorative social reform and therefore denies the possibility of what could be, in favour of what is. Conceived as such, it is neither prefigurative nor does it offer participants a standpoint that is immanent to the object of critique.

In my article, Writing about academic labour, I concluded by drawing on Postone’s assertion that ‘resistance’ as a form of action expresses “a deeply dualistic worldview that tends to reify both the system of domination and the idea of agency.” (Postone 2006, 108). It is “an expression of a deep and fundamental helplessness, conceptually as well as politically.” (Postone 2006, 102) Moreover, it is “an undialectical category that does not grasp its own conditions of possibility.” (2006, 108) Postone’s argument has had a profound affect on the way I view ‘scholar activism’ and reflect on my work on the Social Science Centre as a form of praxis. The key to understanding his argument here is that, as with Kemmis’ use of Habermas, action grounded upon a form of (inter-) subjectivity which views labour simply as the production of use-value, i.e. ‘concrete’, ‘natural’, ‘material’ wealth, is a “hypostatisation of the concrete”; it fetishises the concrete as a form of anti-capitalist resistance, inevitably leading to a sense of helplessness.

“The hypostatization of the concrete and the identification of capital with the manifest abstract underlie a form of “anticapitalism” that seeks to overcome the existing social order from a standpoint which actually remains intrinsic to that order”. (Postone 2003: 93)

This is the danger of a type of activism, framed as ‘action research’ or otherwise, which asserts a radical subjectivity outside the double character of labour. Although widespread, such action is based on a limited theoretical position which, as Neary and Amsler have argued, in practice

“perpetuates the approach it is attempting to critique … replicating and repeating struggles in more fragmented forms without posing a fundamental challenge.” (Neary & Amsler 2012: 119)

As an example of activism, the formation of the SSC was intended to be progressive within the limits of what was possible. It was not oppositional to the idea of the modern university only to what it had actually become. It was not borne out of helplessness but out of the crises produced by the capital labour relation, recognising that new models are needed that are more adequate to the crises we are experiencing. What is required then, for me at least, is to continue to develop my research in and on the SSC in such a way that it is constitutionally and pedagogically grounded in a particular understanding of academic labour and an academic commons, which recognises the constituting and mediating role of wage work and private property in all aspects of social life, not least higher education.

A perverse society in which human relations take on the form of relations between things

Source: Peter Hudis (2014) Yes, there is an alternative – and it can be found in Marx.

“…even in discussing the most initial phase of a new society, Marx envisions a far more radical and fundamental social transformation than has been envisaged by both his followers and critics. Communism for Marx couldn’t be further from an “idealized image of capitalism.” So why is it that so many fail to see this? It has much to do with a failure to grasp the depth of Marx’s critique of capitalism. He did not object to capitalism simply because of the existence of private property and the market (both of which existed long before capitalism). Nor did he object to capitalism simply because it was “anarchic” and lacked a centralized plan (many despotic societies were also planned). He objected to capitalism because it is a perverse society in which human relations take on the form of relations between things. And human relations take on the form of relations between things because of the dominance of value production—the subjection of living individuals to abstract forms of domination of their own making.

Marx reached for a totally new kind of society, one that would annul the prevailing concept of time in capitalist society.59 But this critical determinant becomes totally obscured if one fails to grasp the great divide between actual labor time—expressed in time as the space for human development—and socially necessary labor time, which suppresses human development. Once these two radically opposed concepts of time are conflated, Marx’s revolutionary vision of freedom and liberation readily becomes corrupted into a counter-revolutionary tyranny.”

Beneath the surface of political forms

“All political instruction finally should be centered upon the idea that Auschwitz should never happen again. This would be possible only when it devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities, to this most important of problems. To do this education must transform itself into sociology, that is, it must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.”

Adorno (1969/1998) Education after Auschwitz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marx on co-operatives, political power, solidarity and knowledge

Karl Marx’s Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association, “The First International”, October 21-27 1864. (my emphasis)

“But there was in store a still greater victory of the political economy of labor over the political economy of property. We speak of the co-operative movement, especially the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold “hands”. The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labor need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the laboring man himself; and that, like slave labor, like serf labor, hired labor is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labor plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart. In England, the seeds of the co-operative system were sown by Robert Owen; the workingmen’s experiments tried on the Continent were, in fact, the practical upshot of the theories, not invented, but loudly proclaimed, in 1848.

At the same time the experience of the period from 1848 to 1864 has proved beyond doubt that, however, excellent in principle and however useful in practice, co-operative labor, if kept within the narrow circle of the casual efforts of private workmen, will never be able to arrest the growth in geometrical progression of monopoly, to free the masses, nor even to perceptibly lighten the burden of their miseries. It is perhaps for this very reason that plausible noblemen, philanthropic middle-class spouters, and even keep political economists have all at once turned nauseously complimentary to the very co-operative labor system they had vainly tried to nip in the bud by deriding it as the utopia of the dreamer, or stigmatizing it as the sacrilege of the socialist. To save the industrious masses, co-operative labor ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means. Yet the lords of the land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defense and perpetuation of their economic monopolies. So far from promoting, they will continue to lay every possible impediment in the way of the emancipation of labor. Remember the sneer with which, last session, Lord Palmerston put down the advocated of the Irish Tenants’ Right Bill. The House of Commons, cried he, is a house of landed proprietors. To conquer political power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes. They seem to have comprehended this, for in England, Germany, Italy, and France, there have taken place simultaneous revivals, and simultaneous efforts are being made at the political organization of the workingmen’s party.

One element of success they possess — numbers; but numbers weigh in the balance only if united by combination and led by knowledge. Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries, and incite them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts. This thought prompted the workingmen of different countries assembled on September 28, 1864, in public meeting at St. Martin’s Hall, to found the International Association.”

Imagine… The transnational co-operative university

“Imagine a minimalist ‘university’, on a regional or even national scale, to which autonomous units prepare and present candidates. Why go it alone rather than help to form an open, cooperative university network designed for learners and learning in our times? There is potential for students, teachers, managers and support staff to socialize massive, open online courses (Moocs), to prevent autonomy at single institutional level working for a co-operative difference rather than a competitive sameness. Imagine a university -‘universal’ was a favourite Owenite word – as a complex local and global cluster of federally-linked mutual societies of diverse sizes fit for their purpose and for meeting members’ needs. Some might be as small as seminar rooms; others as large as science parks and with no social or technical obstacles to communication between them or, for that matter, with anyone else who wishes to learn to follow the argument wherever it leads.”

Source: Yeo, Stephen (2015) The co-operative university? Transforming higher education. In: Woodin, Tom (Ed.) Co-operation, Learning and Co-operative Values, London: Routledge.

A few quick thoughts:

The Social Science Centre could be seen as an embryonic expression of this: a ‘model’ that was always conceived to scale horizontally (through local replication elsewhere) rather than vertically.

See also Dan Cook’s report on Realising the Co-operative University, where he too, leans towards the ‘network’ model as both appropriate and viable (paragraph 4.5.3 – 4.6).

And see work on ‘open co-operatives‘, which is an attempt at theorising such a network of locally autonomous yet globally associated worker co-operatives, based around a hybrid model of reciprocity that accounts for immaterial and material goods and services.

A solidarity network of autonomous yet associated, mutually constituted co-operatives for higher education seems appropriate to me, for all the reasons that Yeo and Cook outline. It could also take advantage of the existing global solidarity structure of the international co-operative movement, which works at both the local and global level, respecting the autonomy of each co-operative but with an emphasis on the core value of ‘co-operation among co-operatives‘.

It reminds me of my former work at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International, which acted on behalf of local ‘sections’ or branches of Amnesty across the world, was accountable to them and governed by a global meeting of 500 representatives every two years.  The Secretariat has no individual subscribing members (this is the role of the local section e.g. AI UK, AI USA), but it co-ordinates and supports the work of all Amnesty sections across the world, which in turn fund the Secretariat once they reach a certain level of local income.  This transnational approach to governance could be applied to education, too.

Clearly one piece of work is to study the models of local/global organisational solidarity both within and external to the co-operative movement. e.g. trade unions, NGOs, special interest groups such as W3C, etc. and how knowledge is produced and shared within those existing networks. Surely this has been studied extensively already…

* Credit to my colleague, Mike Neary who was first to talk about the idea of a ‘transnational co-operative university’ at the ‘Co-operative education against the crises‘ conference last year.

‘trades unions have from 1871 been the legally constituted subjectivity of the working class’

Source: Mieville, China (2005) Between Equal Rights. A Marxist Theory of International Law. Boston: Brill.

“As Kay and Mott point out, the labour contract is an unstable form that attempts to mediate contradictions.

The solution that the law has developed combines two elements:

1) The episodic nature of the transaction: so that the worker only submits himself to capital period by period, and never finally alienates his will. This permits the illusion that he remains in ultimate possession of himself. . . .

2) In the contract itself the object that is formally alienated does not appear as labour-power, i.e. a capacity which is an immediate attribute of the sub- ject, but as labour, i.e. expended labour-power, or labour which has become external to the worker.

The subordination of the labouring population to industrial capital necessitated a development of the categories of individual property which had been adequate to mercantile and artisan-based capitalism ‘when the process of accumulation was realised through the will of individual entrepreneurs’. The move to joint-stock companies provided the germ-seed of the modern corporation. This meant, in Marx’s words, then Kay and Mott’s,

[c]apital, which is inherently based on a social mode of production and pre- supposes a social concentration of means of production and labour-power, now receives the form of social capital (capital of directly associated individuals) in contrast to private capital, and its enterprises appear as social enterprises as opposed to private ones. This is the abolition of capital as private property within the confines of the capitalist mode of production itself.

Legislation in 1855 and 1862 established the principle of limited liability. . . . [T]his new legal form. . . . established a clear distinction between the private property of the capitalist (subject to consumption) and the property of the capitalist project (subject to accumulation).

It is now the capitalist project which must use wage-labour to accumulate, as opposed to the individual capitalist. A necessary corollary of this was the development of the juridical form to allow for a corporate body to be the owner of a commodity and therefore to retain legal personality. This was not a ‘new’ legal form but a development of the legal form Pashukanis outlines on the basis of that form itself.

With the move to the juridical acknowledgement of the agency of abstract entities of accumulation, the same tendency manifested on the side of the working class, where abstract entities of production were necessarily legally recognised. It would be nonsensical for the company to engage in a vast number of contracts, each with its own set of negotiations, one with each of its workers, and it would diminish the formal power of the corporation vis-à-vis its workers if each of them was its formal equal. The legal formalisation of capital’s agent, the company, had its flipside in the formalisation of labour’s agent, the collective organisation of workers, the trade union. ‘In composing the fully developed wage contract, it is necessary for the state to establish the subjectivities of both parties, since neither capital nor labour are spontaneous economic entities.’

Marx himself points out the extent to which such double-sided legalisation of capital and labour as collectives is a result of the peculiar nature of labour-power as a commodity, for similar reasons as those laid out by Kay and Mott.

The capitalist maintains his right as a purchaser when he tries to make the working day as long as possible . . . On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the worker maintains his right as a seller when he wishes to reduce the working day to a particular normal length. . . . [I]n the history of capitalist production, the establishment of a norm for the working day presents itself as a struggle over the limits of that day, a struggle between collective capital . . . and collective labour. . . .

As Kay and Mott point out, ‘trades unions have from 1871 been the legally constituted subjectivity of the working class’. There was a sequence of legal reforms and judgements extending the legal personality of the trade unions from 1841 to 1918. ‘This sequence of legislation defining both labour organisations and their space in law, was the formation of the legal subjectivity of labour by the state.’

What we have here is a theory of the legal recognition of corporations and unions, one of the fundamental changes in contract sometimes deemed to undermine Pashukanis’s theory, understood as a shift in the atoms of the juridical relationship on the basis of the commodity relationship under changing conditions of mass industrialisation and the commodification of labour-power itself. In other words, this does not represent a move away from the commodity-form theory, but a vindication of it.

At the heart of the capitalist economy is the extraordinary commodity of labour-power, which is a commodity simultaneously like and utterly unlike any other.”

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]

Wages for Students!

“We are fed up with working for free

We demand real money now for the schoolwork we do.

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

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

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

No more unpaid schoolwork!

The Wages for Students Students”

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