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.

Slides for ‘Academic Identities’ conference

Here are our slides for the Academic Identities conference, 8-9th July 2014, Durham. The abstract is also below. A paper will follow sometime this summer.

Download these slides.

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic labour, students as consumers and the value form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. What is a commodity?

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

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

2. Whose labour power commodity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Production, then, is also immediately consumption, consumption is also immediately production. Each is immediately its opposite. But at the same time a mediating movement takes place between the two. Production mediates consumption; it creates the latter’s material; without it, consumption would lack an object. But consumption also mediates production, in that it alone creates for the products the subject for whom they are products. The product only obtains its ‘last finish’ in consumption.”

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

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

3. How is the value of a commodity expressed?

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

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

3.1 Simple value form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.1.1 The relative value form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.1.2 The equivalent form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.1.3 Exchange value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or

1 academic is worth 10 students

or

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

or

1 academic is worth £20,000

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

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

4. Total or Expanded Value form

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

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

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

Thus we obtain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. General value form

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

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

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

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

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

10 student labour power = 1 academic labour power

and

40 drums of oil = 1 academic labour power

Therefore

10 student labour power = 40 drums of oil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 x academic labour power = 5 x academic labour power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. The money form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

i.e. the money-form.”

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

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

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

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

Writing about academic labour

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

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

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

Real abstraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moten and Harney make this clear, too.

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

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

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

“Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.”

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

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

A ‘golden age’ of individualism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From being to doing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When numerous labourers work together side by side, whether in one and the same process, or in different but connected processes, they are said to co-operate, or to work in co-operation… Co-operation ever constitutes the fundamental form of the capitalist mode of production.”

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

The value form of the teacher-student relation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Production, then, is also immediately consumption, consumption is also immediately production. Each is immediately its opposite. But at the same time a mediating movement takes place between the two. Production mediates consumption; it creates the latter’s material; without it, consumption would lack an object. But consumption also mediates production, in that it alone creates for the products the subject for whom they are products. The product only obtains its ‘last finish’ in consumption.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it is not enough.

 

Digital labour, academic labour and Karl Marx

Below are some initial notes on Christian Fuchs’ book, Digital Labour and Karl Marx (2014). I think it was published about six weeks ago and as far as I can see, has yet to receive any substantive reviews. Don’t take this as a review either, it’s just a first pass at working through the book and trying to think about what it can bring to discussions around academic labour. On the whole, I’m very impressed with it. It’s 400 pages, comprehensively structured with a glossary at the back, and so a very useful reference and teaching resource. It combines a good discussion of Marx’s critique of political economy with a literature review and several illustrative case studies. I’ll be buying it as soon as it’s out in paperback (the publisher has told me May 2014, at the latest).

Defining ‘digital labour’: Form and content, appearance and essence, abstract and concrete

Fuchs’ book opens with:

“How is labour changing in the age of computers, the Internet, and “social media” such as Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter? In Digital Labour and Karl Marx, Christian Fuchs attempts to answer that question, crafting a systematic critical theorisation of labour as performed in the capitalist ICT industry. Relying on a range of global case studies – from unpaid social media prosumers or Chinese hardware assemblers at Foxconn to miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo – Fuchs sheds light on the labour costs of digital media, examining the way ICT corporations exploit human labour and the impact of this exploitation on the lives, bodies, and minds of workers.”

From this we are made aware that this is not a book about ‘immaterial labour’ or ‘cognitive capitalism’, although it discusses these theories, but rather it is primarily a critique of the forms of labour that contribute to the production of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).

The book is divided into three main sections: Theory, case studies and conclusions.

The first section begins with an introduction to what ‘digital labour’ refers to and why it should be studied. Fuchs defines digital labour through reference to examples: mining for minerals used in mobile phones; Foxconn factory workers; Google software engineers; Amazon’s Mechanical Turk; Amazon’s warehouse workers; Work.Shop.Play, a website that rewards people for completing surveys for market research; and crowdsourcing the translation of Facebook’s website into other languages. From this, Fuchs defines ‘digital labour’ in the following way:

“These examples outline various forms of labour associated with the ICT industry. They differ in amount in regard to the levels of payment; health risks; physical, ideological and social violence; stress; free time; overtime; and the forms of coercion and control the workers are experiencing, but all have in common that human labour-power is exploited in a way that monetarily benefits ICT corporations and has negative impacts on the lives, bodies or minds of workers. The forms of labour described in this book are all types of digital labour because they are part of a collective work force that is required for the existence, usage and application of digital media. What defines them is not a common type of occupation, but rather the industry they contribute to and in which capital exploits them.” (p. 4)

In the book’s glossary (‘Digital Labour Keywords’), the entry for digital labour is:

Digital labour Digital labour is alienated digital work: it is alienated from itself, from the instruments and objects of labour and from the products of labour. Alienation is alienation of the subject from itself (labour-power is put to use for and is controlled by capital), alienation from the object (the objects of labour and the instruments of labour) and the subject-object (the products of labour). Digital work and digital labour are broad categories that involve all activities in the production of digital media technologies and contents.

This means that in the capitalist media industry, different forms of alienation and exploitation can be encountered. Examples are slave workers in mineral extraction, Taylorist hardware assemblers, software engineers, professional online content creators (e.g. online journalists), call centre agents and social media prosumers. In digital labour that is performed on corporate social media, users are objectively alienated because (a) in relation to subjectivity, they are coerced by isolation and social disadvantage if they leave monopoly capital platforms (such as Facebook); (b) in relation to the objects of labour, their human experiences come under the control of capital; (c) in relation to the instruments of labour, the platforms are not owned by users but by private companies that also commodify user data; and (d) in relation to the product of labour, monetary profit is individually controlled by the platform’s owners. These four forms of alienation constitute together the exploitation of digital labour by capital. Alienation of digital labour concerns labour-power, the object and instruments of labour and the created products.” See also: digital work
Digital work Digital work is a specific form of work that makes use of the body, mind or machines or a combination of all or some of these elements as an instrument of work in order to organize nature, resources extracted from nature, or culture and human experiences, in such a way that digital media are produced and used. The products of digital work are depending on the type of work: minerals, components, digital media tools or digitally mediated symbolic representations, social relations, artefacts, social systems and communities. Digital work includes all activities that create use-values that are objectified in digital media technologies, contents and products generated by applying digital media.

See also: digital labour” (p. 352)

I’ve quoted these in full because it’s important to know what we’re analysing and because I want to determine whether and how ‘academic labour’ differs from ‘digital labour’. After all, I am engaged in implementing a digital education strategy at my university, I have run a number of ICT related projects over the years and I think the label ‘digital scholar’ applies to academics like me. Am I a digital worker? Is my academic labour also digital labour?

From Fuchs’ definitions, we can say that digital labour is indeed a “broad category”. I think we can distil it as:

Alienated and exploited digital work which is defined by its association with the ICT industry; it creates value for that industry. It incorporates all physiological aspects of the human body, its relationship to nature and machines. It is objectified in digital goods as well as services that are reliant on digital goods.

Another way to define digital labour is to question what it is not. Can we think of a type of labouring activity that can not be included under this broad category? We have seen above that ‘digital work’ is not defined by its direct relationship to digital outputs. For example, in a month of work, the miner of minerals for a mobile phone may never encounter an ICT technology. They may live without access to electricity, walk to work, dig holes and that is the extent of their labouring routine. As Fuchs notes in the introduction to his case study on the slavery of mineral mining (what he calls ‘digital slavery’), “most of the slaves who extract these minerals have never owned a computer or laptop.” (p.155) So in thinking about non-digital labour, we need to think of a type of labouring activity where the ICT industry does not profit from it in any way and it does not produce ICT goods or any services that rely on ICT.

The first thing that comes to my mind is food production. Is this digital labour? The food commodity is not a digital object, yet according to Fuchs’ definition, I think large-scale, industrial food production and manufacturing (e.g. ‘e-agriculture‘) could count as digital labour. It is highly mechanised and relies on the global trade of food commodities. The ICT industry definitely benefits from the production processes of food, even apart from it keeping their workers alive.

What about nursing? The ICT industry definitely benefits from the medical and care professions. The act of care in a hospital or care home can be seen as contributing to the profits of the ICT industry. It may at first seem like a long stretch between patient care and the revenues of Dell, for example, but the labour of a nurse includes the use of ICT and management of that labour requires the use of ICT. Cisco, for example, thinks that ‘ICT [is] at the heart of NHS reform‘. [pdf] It is an “integral and underpinning part of NHS business”.

The issue that Fuchs’ definition of digital labour points to is that it could include most types of labour. Even slavery is referred to as ‘digital slavery’. However, Fuchs suggests otherwise in his discussion of an imaginary company where workers’ time is divided 50/50 between the production of laptops and the production of cars. Fuchs says that 50% of the time the individual undertakes digital work and 50% is not digital work, yet for 100% of their time they are an “industrial worker.” I understand what Fuchs is saying here and the need to distinguish between labour that is directly involved in the production of ICT and that which is not, but how close does the worker have to be to the ICT commodity? The miner working under slave-like conditions may never see the phones that contain the minerals they labour and die for, but I walk around with the results of their labour in my pocket all day. My consumption is their production. In the case of cars, which seems like a weak example given how all new cars are ‘managed’ by computers, the designer, the fabricator, the factory floor manager, the person who maintains the production line robots, and even the hands-on worker who assembles and finishes the car, all of these roles today draw on the use of ICT and through their production of vehicles, they also produce value for the ICT industry.  Consumption and production are never far apart. Without consumption, there would be no production.  Marx recognised this in his manuscripts:

“Production, then, is also immediately consumption, consumption is also immediately production. Each is immediately its opposite. But at the same time a mediating movement takes place between the two. Production mediates consumption; it creates the latter’s material; without it, consumption would lack an object. But consumption also mediates production, in that it alone creates for the products the subject for whom they are products. The product only obtains its ‘last finish’ in consumption.”

Fuchs’ definition suggests to me that almost all labour in the world today that engages in the capitalist mode of production could be called ‘digital labour’. From ‘digital slaves’ to ‘digital scholars‘, the social form of labour remains the same, even though the way in which it appears in the particular, concrete case studies, may look quite different.

For example, the essential content of labour of both mineral miners and scholars shares the following common attributes and only the degree to which these attributes characterise their work is different.

  • they both sell their labour power in exchange for a wage, without which they could not survive.
  • they are both alienated (separated) from the product of their labour which becomes the private property of their employer. Private property is an outcome of alienated labour. Value can therefore only be derived from the labour of an individual which is alienated.
  • they are both exploited because their employers pay them less than the value they create
  • the labour of the slave and scholar has both a concrete and abstract form: concrete in the physiological sense that produces something of use (a use value), and abstract as a result of the alienation of their work being a source of undifferentiated value which is measured quantitatively by ‘socially necessary labour time’ at the moment of exchange (exchange value)
  • the value they create decreases as their productivity increases due to competition between capitalists
  • the labour of both the slave and the scholar does not exist apart from the process of capitalist valorisation (M-C-M’)

A Marxist analysis of labour shows that the enormous diversity of labour as it appears within capitalism has a particular historical content. The various activities of labour highlight how capitalism relies on the socialisation and division of labour: The scholar undertakes research which identifies certain minerals useful for networked communication, and the miner undertakes to extract those minerals. This is capitalism’s social, co-operative division of labour.  It is one thing to critique labour at the level of appearances, skills, conditions, etc., and another to discuss it through general abstractions which help us understand why we find ourselves labouring in this co-operative and social, yet alienated and exploited way. The danger is that we complicate our analysis unnecessarily by introducing terms such as ‘digital labour’, ‘academic labour’, ‘immaterial labour’, etc. and take our eye off the real target of critique which is labour defined by the capitalist mode of production.

When applying a Marxist critique of society, we don’t start with the way things appear to us in a particular concrete sense, but rather from a dialectical method of abstraction that attempts to identify the real content of things. In Capital, having discussed the ‘buying and selling of labour power’, Marx insists that to really understand what is at work, we must inquire into the ‘hidden abode’ of the capitalist mode of production.

“Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.”

The “noisy sphere” in which (digital) labour appears to us on the “surface”, while appearing to be the obvious place to begin an analysis, should in fact be the end point. The working conditions are terrible – we can see that, but why are they terrible? Not simply because the capitalist is greedy and violent, but because he is compelled by a totalising, social mode of production that, like the labourer, his life is determined by. To discover this, Marx tells us that we must “rise from the abstract to the concrete” in our analysis, scientifically applying a categorial analysis to the everyday appearance of things so as to determine the categories of capitalist social relations at work e.g. alienation, exploitation, use/exchange value, concrete/abstract labour, etc.

These abstractions reveal the social form of things which appear in the particular concrete activity but which have a ‘hidden’, historical, socially constructed content.

As a result, what we find is that the distinction of digital or non-digital labour is less useful than understanding the degree to which different appearances of concrete labouring activity express the content of capitalist labour as listed above. Clearly on one level, the particular work of the slave and scholar are very far apart. The conditions of employment, the degree of alienation, the magnitude of exploitation and the degree to which the value of each individual can be measured are all very different. Fuchs’ definition recognises this by encompassing both the slave miner and the Google engineer yet he does not go as far as negating the idea of ‘digital labour’ as ‘digital work’ which benefits the ICT industry.

“These examples outline various forms of labour associated with the ICT industry. They differ in amount in regard to the levels of payment; health risks; physical, ideological and social violence; stress; free time; overtime; and the forms of coercion and control the workers are experiencing, but all have in common that human labour-power is exploited in a way that monetarily benefits ICT corporations and has negative impacts on the lives, bodies or minds of workers.” (p.6)

Forces and relations of production

The question then, is whether ‘digital labour’ is a useful, critical category that provides a deeper insight into contemporary capitalist society. Does the advent of ‘digital labour’ point to a different ‘logic’ of the capitalist mode of production? Is Marx’s critique still relevant? Later in his book (ch.5), Fuchs discusses this in relation to the distinction made between capitalist society and an information society. He draws on Adorno who gave a keynote talk on the topic of ‘Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?’ Basically, Adorno was asking “whether it is true that Marx is out of date.” Adorno proposes that contemporary society is industrial according to the state of its forces of production while being capitalist in its relations of production.

“In terms of critical, dialectical theory, I would like to propose as an initial, necessarily abstract answer that contemporary society undoubtedly is an industrial society according to the state of its forces of production. Industrial labor has everywhere become the model of society as such, regardless of the frontiers separating differing political systems. It has developed into a totality because methods modeled on those of industry are necessarily extended by the laws of economics to other realms of material production, administration, the sphere of distribution, and those that call themselves culture. In contrast, however, society is capitalist in its relations of production. People are still what they were in Marx’s analysis in the middle of the nineteenth century. […] Production takes place today, as then, for the sake of profit” (Adorno, 1968)

Fuchs re-phrases Adorno’s dialectic by proposing that,

“In terms of critical, dialectical theory, I would like to propose as an initial, necessarily abstract answer that contemporary society is an information society according to the state of its forces of production. In contrast, however, contemporary society is capitalist in its relations of production. People are still what they were in Marx’s analysis in the middle of the nineteenth century. Production takes place today, as then, for the sake of profit, and for achieving this end it to a certain extent makes use of knowledge and information technology in production. Productive forces and relations of production are interlocking phenomena: they contain each other.” (p.150)

Fuchs is critical of the tendency of some critics who want to separate the ‘information society’ from capitalist society, to argue that either everything has changed or that nothing has fundamentally changed since Marx undertook his critique of political economy. Fuchs rightly argues that a dialectical analysis is necessary, one which recognises that

“there are certain changes taking place that are intended to support the deepening of the class structure but also contain what Marx termed Keimformen (germ forms of an alternative society). That the development of the informational productive forces is itself contradictory and comes in conflict with the capitalist relations of production can be observed by phenomena such as file sharing on the Internet, the discussions about intellectual property rights, the emergence of pirate parties in the political landscape of advanced capitalist countries, or the popularity of free software” (p. 151)

I agree. However, following my distinction earlier about using Marx’s critical categories to understand the social form of capitalist labour, I’d like to suggest a different way of approaching an analysis of ‘digital labour’ that reconciles all of the issues I have outlined above: the distinction between production and consumption; between content and form of labour; and between the forces and relations of production.

In some earlier notes I made on the work of Simon Clarke and Moishe Postone, I highlighted the distinction between analysis at the level of content and analysis at the level of form.

“For Clarke, “questions of form are more fundamental than questions of content” and for Postone, it is vital to understand “the distinction between what modern capitalism is and the way it appears.” Both writers deem a retreat into the concrete as misguided as it misunderstands capital and its contradictions. Consequently, opponents of capital frequently experience a demoralised sense of political impotency – a sense of helplessness.”

My concern with Fuchs’ definition of ‘digital labour’ and in the general development of the ‘digital labour’ line of critique over the last few years is that it leads to a position of helplessness by focusing on the appearance of labour to the neglect of its social form. In his book, Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology (1991), Simon Clarke includes a section on ‘The contradictory social form of capitalist production’ (p.228). In this section of his book, he responds to the

“marginalist attempt to establish the rationality of capitalist exchange and of capitalist production. We now have to put production and exchange together, to locate the source of the fundamental irrationality of exchange, which is to be found in the contradictory social form of capitalist reproduction.” (p.229)

Clarke goes on to discuss how the capitalist mode of production is a social process requiring both producers and consumers. The historical separation of the direct producer from the means of production was “not sufficient to secure the reproduction of the social relations of capitalist production.” (p.229) Workers who sell their labour power receive a wage with which they are no longer propertyless and on which they subsist. The capitalist has produced commodities through the purchase of labour power, but they are worthless until they are exchanged for money in the hands of consumers.

“The social reproduction of the capitalist mode of production now depends on the particular use made of the commodities in the hands of the worker and the capitalist: the worker must use the money in her possession to reconstitute herself, physically and socially, as a wage labourer. The capitalist must use the means of production and labour-power in his possession to reconstitute himself as a capitalist.” (p.229)

Thus, the consumer, who is only a consumer because they are a producer of labour power which they sell for a wage, is dependent on the production of commodities by capitalists who are dependent on the consumption of commodities by workers. In a capitalist society, production and consumption are, as noted above, “immediately opposite”. Workers are required to sell enough of their labour power, measured in time, so as to subsist (‘necessary labour’) and the employer seeks to ‘extend’ the time of labouring, either literally or by improving productivity such that the worker is more productive in a given period of time (this is deemed ‘surplus labour’). It is the surplus labour, above and beyond what the worker is paid for, which invests the commodity with the potential to realise profit upon exchange.

The important point that Clarke makes in this section is that despite workers being paid a wage upon which they should be able to subsist, the capitalist mode of production relies on the imposition of a socially constructed scarcity.

“The physical reproduction of the worker is not a sufficient condition for the social reproduction of the worker as a wage-labourer. If wages rise significantly above the socially determined subsistence level there will be no compulsion on the worker to return to work for the next period. The form of the wage-relation therefore not only determines the needs of the worker as a consumer, it also determines that the relation between those needs and the worker’s resources will be a relation of scarcity – not the natural scarcity depicted by the economists, but the socially constructed scarcity imposed by the dynamics of capitalism. It is this relation of scarcity that forces the vast majority of workers to assume a ‘rational’ orientation to work and to consumption, working to maximise their incomes, and carefully allocating their scarce resources to ensure that they can meet their subsistence needs, rather than assuming the ‘hedonistic’ orientation of the bourgeoisie, for whom work can be a means of self-realisation and consumption a source of pleasure. The capitalist system of production, far from representing the most rational means of resolving the problem of scarcity, depends on the reproduction of scarcity, whether by the restriction of wages or the inflation of needs.” (p. 230)

Both the worker and the capitalist are subject to this process of socially constructed scarcity. It is not simply a matter of capitalists exploiting individuals in their roles of worker and consumer. The reproduction of capital, necessary to both the capitalist and the worker in this social relation, entails the subordination of labour due to competition.

“Competition is the form in which capital presents itself as a barrier to its own reproduction.” (p. 231)

That is, competition results in the necessary improvement of productivity so that the price of commodities can be set lower and in line with competitors’ prices, thus pushing down the value produced per commodity and thus requiring the production and sale of more commodities so as to realise the intended and required overall value for the capitalist. Greater productivity results in the value of labour decreasing and only the sale of greater quantities of commodities can make up for that fall in value. This results in a tendency to overproduce commodities and in response stimulates the expansion of needs so as to create a condition of scarcity from a condition of abundance. Eventually, this results in a crisis of overproduction where consumption, fuelled by the wage-relation and extended by forms of credit, cannot be maintained in line with production. At the point of crisis, exchange of certain commodities collapses and therefore so does the production of value.

Clarke’s book, and this section in particular, is especially useful in understanding how both consumers and producers are stimulated by competition between capitalists, who themselves are subject to the determinate and irrational ‘logic’ of capital. It helps us understand how the inflation of needs and socially constructed scarcity compel individuals into membership of the social form of capitalist production, to valorise value at the point where production and consumption become immediate and value is realised: exchange. Consumption is subject to the wage-relation and the requirements of production, which is constantly being improved leading to the overproduction of commodities, which in turn imposes competition within the market. This competition compels capitalists to stimulate a greater variety of ‘needs’, further alienating labour from its product.

“Such alienation persists so long as the human activity of workers as producers is subordinated to a need imposed on the workers to reduce their labour-time to a minimum, instead of being subordinated to the human needs and abilities of the workers themselves.” (p. 231)

Thus, the ‘forces of production’ have not been reconstituted from an industrial to information society. Information enables greater productivity in industry and platforms such as Facebook, whose commercial value is largely dependent on advertising revenue, are opportunities to stimulate social need and impose scarcity. Adorno’s distinction between ‘industrial’ and ‘capitalist’ was a false one, as is the distinction between ‘information’ and ‘capitalism’. As Clarke shows, capital is a social relation. Its social form is to be discovered in its form of production, not in the different historic methods of improving productivity nor in the various expressions of its commodity form. Capital appears in the form of things which control the lives of people, but Marx showed that it is a historic form of social relations based on the compulsion to produce value, the current, historic form of social wealth. Such compulsion exploits the need for individuals to sustain their lives as well as their productive capacity to meet those needs through the imposition of private property and wage-labour. The development of technology (steam, analogue, digital, etc.) in itself does not indicate new historical productive forces. The productive force is the capital relation, expressed through wage-labour and private property, the organising principle of life under capitalism.

From this standpoint, ‘digital labour’ as defined earlier is not a distinctive form of labour but carries all of the attributes of labour required of the social form of capitalist production. The excellent case studies that Fuchs usefully provides (miners, Foxconn workers, Indian software developers, Google employees, call centre workers, and social media users) support the definition of ‘digital labour’ as labour which profits the ICT industry, but arguably presents the digital labourer as the personification of a new type and use of labour power. Yet, Fuchs’ conclusions are quite the opposite. His book is rich with an analysis of Marx’s critical categories and the case studies are discussed in terms laid out in his more theoretical first section. Fuchs makes clear that

“The “information economy” is not new, postmodern or radically discontinuous. It is rather a highly complex formation in which various contemporary and historical forms of labour, exploitation, different forms of organization of the productive forces, and different modes of production are articulated with each other and form a dialectic of exploitation.” (p.296)

What Fuchs’ book does is establish ‘digital labour’ as a distinct form of labour and then, by the end, takes that assumption apart by showing how digital labour is simply capitalist labour and that Marx’s 150 year-old critique remains highly relevant and useful today. His book is a response to an emerging understanding of ‘digital labour’ which confined it to mainly unpaid labour through social media and he argues for an extension of the definition to incorporate a broader range of labour practices which benefit the ICT industry.

 “Digital labour has thus far mainly been used as a term characterizing unpaid labour conducted by social media users (see the contributions in Scholz 2013). We can conclude from the discussion in this book that social media prosumption is just one form of digital labour which is networked with and connected to other forms of digital labour that together constitute a global ecology of exploitation enabling the existence of digital media. It is time to broaden the meaning of the term “digital labour” to include all forms of paid and unpaid labour that are needed for existence, production, diffusion and use of digital media. Digital labour is relational in a twofold sense: it is a relation between labour and capital and relational at the level of the IDDL that is shaped by articulated modes of production, forms of the organization of productive forces and variations of the dominant capitalist mode of production.” (p.296)

In my view, this still falls short of the necessary task of understanding these types of labour as simply ‘capitalist labour’ and in doing so, remains a distraction from the purpose and method of critical political economy which is to start from the abstract and rise to the concrete. ‘Digital labour’ theory seems to implicitly start from the concrete appearance of new and novel forms of ‘digital work’; Marx insists that we begin with abstractions; Postone warns us that to focus on the concrete appearance of things leads to a sense of helplessness; and Clarke reminds us that the object of critique is capital, a social form of human relations determined by the self-valorisation of value. The point then, is to discover a new form of social wealth other than value and in doing so, necessarily abolish the substance of value: labour, and in doing so, overcome capitalism. As Fuchs says:

“The law of value has not lost its force. It is in full effect everywhere in the world where exploitation takes place. It has been extended to underpaid and unpaid forms of labour, corporate media prosumption being just one of them. As a result of technical increases in productivity, the value of commodities tends to historically decrease. At the same time, value is the only source of capital, commodities and profit in capitalism. The contradictions of value have resulted in a disjuncture of values, profits and prices that contributes to actual or potential crises, which shows that crises are inherent to capitalism. This it turn makes it feasible to replace capitalism with a commons-based system of existence, in which not value but creativity, social relations, free time and play are the source of value*. Such a society is called communism and is the negation of the negativity of capitalism.” (p.279)

* Fuchs’ specific use of the term ‘value’ at this point is confusing. I prefer ‘social wealth’ as a way of distinguishing ‘value’ the substance of which is abstract labour, from a qualitatively different post-capitalist form of social relations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open education and the emancipation of labour from teaching and learning

Abstract submitted to the CfP on ‘Critical Approaches to Open Education‘, Learning, Media and Technology journal.

I have previously argued that open education is a liberal project with a focus on the freedom of things rather than the freedom of people. (Winn, 2012) Furthermore, I have argued that despite an implicit critique of private property with its emphasis on ‘the commons’, there is no corresponding critique of academic labour (Neary, Winn, 2012).

The imposition of private property and wage-labour is the organising principle of the capitalist mode of production (Neary, Winn, 2009), a “determinate logic” (Postone, 1993) which continually seeks to alienate labour from its full creative capacity (Wendling, 2011) and reduce the necessity of labour-time in the production of value. For capital, the crucial role of all forms of education is to ensure the reproduction and improvement of labour in a historical form that is conducive to the production of value. For the student, education becomes necessary in order to improve the value of the labour power commodity upon which their subsistence depends.

This paper will take up the conclusions of my earlier work where I argued that the critical power and potential of open education “is in its yet under-acknowledged re-conceptualisation of what it means to work as a researcher, teacher and student.” (Winn, 2012) In the work cited, I have argued that an emancipatory form of education cannot be created by the production of educational resources as ‘a commons’ and the socialisation of academic (i.e. teacher-student) labour through networked technologies.

In this paper, I will develop my critical position that an emancipatory form of education must work towards the emancipation of teachers and students from labour, the dynamic source of value in capitalism, and that this might be achieved through a co-operative pedagogical relationship between individuals out of which alternative organisational and institutional forms are developed that undermine the organising principle of capitalism. In making this argument, I will draw upon my involvement with the Social Science Centre, Lincoln, as well as my work with colleagues at the University of Lincoln (e.g. Neary, 2010; Neary and Hagyard, 2010; Neary and Amsler, 2010).

References

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2012) Open education: common(s), commonism and the new common wealth. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization, 12 (4). pp. 406-422.

Neary, Mike and Amsler, Sarah (2012) Occupy: a new pedagogy of space and time?. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 10 (2).

Neary, Mike (2010) Student as producer: a pedagogy for the avant-garde?,  Learning Exchange, 1 (1).

Neary, Mike and Hagyard, Andy (2010) Pedagogy of excess: an alternative political economy of student life. In: The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer. Routledge, Abingdon.

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

Postone, Moishe (1993) Time, Labour and Social Domination. Cambridge University Press.

Social Science Centre, Lincoln http://socialsciencecentre.org.uk

Wendling (2011) Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation. Palgrave Macmillan

Winn, Joss (2012) Open education: from the freedom of things to the freedom of people. In: Towards teaching in public: reshaping the modern university. Continuum, London.

Is an Open Access journal article a commodity?

I was recently asked this question and here is my reply based on Marx’s critique of the commodity. Implicit in the question is whether something that does not cost anything (zero price) to consume can still be a commodity.

Marx referred to the ‘commodity’ as “the elementary form of wealth. Our investigation begins accordingly with the analysis of the commodity.” That is, we start with the commodity, but have to unravel how it appears in order to understand the totality of capitalist social relations through which it was produced.

To cut to the chase, a commodity is the product of labour which is the source of value. The commodity is not the source of value. The commodity is a ‘bearer’ for value to meet its equivalent value in the market.

“It is the utility of a thing for human life that turns it into a use-value… Use-value realizes itself only in use or in consumption; use-values form the substantial content of wealth, whatever its social form may be. In the form of society which we are going to examine, they form the substantial bearers at the very same time of exchange-value.”

If a product or service deriving from physical and/or mental labour has utility and is consumed by someone other than its producer, it is a commodity. That is not to say that the owner of the commodity will certainly profit from it, but that it simply has the form of a commodity. Marx says nothing about payment here. It’s about two forms of value expressed by the commodity form. If an open access article is a commodity, according to Marx’s analysis, it must have use value and exchange value.

“Hence, commodities are first of all simply to be considered as values, independent of their exchange-relationship or from the form, in which they appear as exchange-values.”

Note that we can identify something as a commodity before knowing its exchange relationship with something else such as money (money is a universal equivalent in the exchange relationship). The price of something, even if zero, does not tell us whether it is a commodity or not. We must not confuse “price” with “value”. It’s about whether its utility is exchangeable and is destined for exchange. It’s about whether the thing is conceived abstractly as an equivalence of something else. What might that be?

If something can be deemed a commodity prior to knowing its eventual equivalence in exchange, then the commodity-ness of it must be the result of something prior to the act of exchange; that is, what is the source of value? Labour.

“The common social substance which merely manifests itself differently in different use-values, is ­ labour. Commodities as values are nothing but crystallized labour.”

I don’t think it’s easy at first to understand the distinction between use value, exchange value and value, but basically, things can have a use value without an exchange value and therefore only possess use value and not value. Value is the form that the use value and the exchange value take in the commodity. You can’t have value without the thing having an exchange value, but the thing can have use value without an exchange value (i.e. I can bake a cake for myself. It’s use is nourishment and pleasure, but it was not produced for the purpose of exchange, unless I become a baker).

Anyway, a commodity = value. What is the source of that value? It’s labour. Therefore, the substance of a commodity = labour.

“A use-value or good only has a value because labour is objectified or materialized in it.”

What is labour? Well, remember that we’re talking about labour in capitalist societies. We’re not concerned with any trans-historical sense of ‘labour’ as effort of some kind, but rather the nature of labour predominant today.

Marx shows that labour can also be analysed as having two forms: concrete and abstract labour. Concrete labour is the physiological effort that has a use. For example, I can employ intellectual and physical effort to write an article or to teach – that’s a concrete, useful expression of my labour power. Abstract labour is the form of equivalence in which capitalist labour is expressed and measured by time. Together, concrete and abstract labour = capitalist labour.

How are these forms of labour expressed in the life of an academic or anyone else? As use value and exchange value. Marx referred to this discovery of the “twofold character of labour” as “one of the two best points in my book (Capital)”. If labour is expressed as both use value and exchange value, then that, of course, makes it a commodity, too. Marx called it a “peculiar” commodity, because it is the only commodity which is capable of producing more value. How does it produce value? Either by lengthening the amount of time one labours (which has natural limits) or by introducing efficiencies in the labour process (e.g. greater division of labour, metrics, KPIs, new technologies and various innovations which replace the useful function of labour, etc.) Either way, the commodity of labour is able to produce a greater amount of commodities than before and therefore more value than before.

Finally and briefly, how is value created? Well, the capitalist pays the worker less than their labour is worth. That is, the employer does not pay the worker an equivalence of their labour power in money. Everywhere commodities are exchanged for their equivalence in the market except the commodity of labour power. That is exploitation. In this usage, ‘exploitation’ does not refer to the working conditions of the worker (the conditions might be wonderful), but rather the worker/labourer/employee/academic (different labels, same person) is not paid what they are worth to their employer. For the worker, there is a bare minimum that they need to sell their labour power for in order to survive, which differs across time and locale. Anything above that is to the benefit of the worker but to the detriment of their employer who is compelled by competitive markets to create surplus value (i.e. profit).

Competitive forces, driven by improved forms of efficiency and innovation, constantly push the price of the commodity down and therefore require the capitalist to ensure that the commodity of labour power is as low as possible, too, so that they continue to produce surplus value. If they don’t produce surplus value, they can’t invest and improve their product and another capitalist will beat them in the market because they did keep wages down, invest part of the surplus in innovation and lower their price.

In a university, we therefore have to first ask ourselves: what is the source of the institution’s value? The answer, according to Marx, has to be labour. Then we ask, how is that value expressed? Again, according to Marx, it is expressed in the form of commodities. What are those commodities? I think we can say they are the product of teaching and learning (e.g. the student, whose labour power we help improve, the courses we develop, validate and sell to the student), and research (e.g. patents, papers, books, etc.) which are, at some point, paid for in money as the equivalence of the specific commodity. (We often use the word ‘attract’ rather than ‘paid for’ – our work ‘attracts’ research income).

There may not be a direct relationship between the OA paper and money like there is for non-OA articles, but if the OA paper is used by someone to improve their labour, which is being paid for by a wage, then there is an equivalence between the wage which pays the worker to improve their labour power which makes them a better teacher, researcher, etc. which results in them writing more/better papers, reproducing better students, improving the reputation of the institution, attracting more external revenue of one kind or another. The point is, that capital is a social relation and the creation of value is a dynamic social process that can be distilled down to the time it takes for labour to produce a commodity: “socially necessary labour time”.

Up until recently, UK universities haven’t had to worry so much about the exchange value (value) of their commodities, because of significant public subsidy. A university which exists in a non-subsidised, competitive market, will be forced to analyse itself in this way, and we see this in the various techniques of metrics, costing of courses, emphasis on ‘staff development’, and so on. If OA research outputs do not appear as commodities, it’s because the forces of competition and the measure of productivity haven’t fully caught up with their producers yet. These things take time. Look at what’s happened to the Internet over the last two decades.

As we know, the writing of a journal paper is a huge undertaking in terms of labour time. Most academics write them partially outside of their contracted employment time. This is an example of how labour in the university is paid less than its value (‘exploited’). Innovations in publishing (e.g. word processing, ePrints, OJS) also help reduce the labour time of producing an article. In the case of Open Access, the price of the journal article to the reader is zero, but the value of the paper to the academic’s employer is something else. In the UK, the REF is now the main measure of value of journal articles, regardless of their price to the reader. What happens in preparation for the REF? There’s a huge amount of activity in the academic labour market as employers seek to purchase better sources of value prior to the periodic measure of value being undertaken. The REF determines the exchange value (value) of the journal article, not the purchase price. As such, the REF is also one measure of the value of academic labour, the primary source of all value in higher education.

All quotes from: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/commodity.htm

These chapters are directly relevant, too:

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch06.htm

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch07.htm

Performativity and the peculiar commodity of labour power

Man with his ventriloquist dummy c1870
Man with his ventriloquist dummy c1870

 

At a doctoral research seminar last week, we discussed Stephen J. Ball’s (2003) article, The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. This is a highly cited article and one in series of articles Ball has written about ‘performativity’. Below are my notes and an attempt to re-articulate points of Ball’s argument using Marx’s critical analysis of labour, which I think offers a complementary and often preferable method of understanding the ‘teacher’s soul’. I propose three ways of understanding performativity, which I only touch on here, but will return to another time.

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‘Performativity’, according to Ball, is one of three “policy technologies” of education reform, the other two being ‘the markets’ and ‘managerialism’.

Performativity is

“a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change – based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organisations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organisation within a field of judgement. The issue of who controls the field of judgement is crucial.” (216)

These technologies of reform are “unstable, uneven but apparently unstoppable”.  They are becoming “embedded in the ‘assumptive worlds’ of many academic educators”. They change what we do and who we are. This reform has created “institutional schizophrenia”, characterised by a “devolved environment”, managed through “monitoring systems and the production of information”. These technologies

“are not simply vehicles for the technical and structural change of organisations but are also mechanisms for reforming teachers (scholars and researchers) and for changing what is means to be a teacher, the technologies of reform produce new kinds of teacher subjects.” (217)

In this “advanced liberal” environment , de-regulation is a process of re-regulation, de-control is a new form of control, a less visible state regulates through the self-regulation of new subjectivities: “enterprising subjects” who “live an existence of calculation” and undertake “intensive work on the self”.

“To be relevant, up-to-date, one needs to talk about oneself and others, and think about actions and relationships in new ways. New roles and subjectivities are produced as teachers are re-worked as producers/providers, educational entrepreneurs and managers and are subject to regular appraisal and review and performance comparisons. We learn to talk about ourselves and the relationships, purposes and motivations in these new ways. The new vocabulary of performance renders old ways of thinking and relating dated or redundant or even obstructive.” (218)

This “form of ventriloquism” is surveilled by “appraisal systems, target-setting, output comparisons”, etc. and leads to “security seeking tactics”, “existential anxiety and dread”. The “neo-liberal professional” performs within and as part of a regulatory environment where “value replaces values.”  It is an “inauthentic”, “contradictory” existence that is “ontologically insecure”. The teacher’s “purposes are made contradictory, motivations become blurred and self worth is uncertain.” The schizophrenia of the institutions leads to “a kind of values schizophrenia” with “a potential ‘splitting’ between the teacher’s own judgements about ‘good practice’ and student ‘needs’ and the rigours of performance.”

“This structural and individual schizophrenia of values and purposes, and the potential for inauthenticity and meaninglessness is increasingly an everyday experience for all. The activities of the new technical intelligentsia, of management, drive performativity into the day-to-day practices of teachers and into the social relations between teachers. They make management, ubiquitous, invisible, inescapable – part of and embedded in everything we do. Increasingly, we choose and judge our actions and they are judged by others on the basis of their contribution to organizational performance, rendered in terms of measurable outputs. Beliefs are no longer important – it is output that counts. Beliefs are part of an older, increasingly displaced discourse.” (223)

It leads to “guilt, uncertainty, instability and the emergence of a new subjectivity”. It leads to struggles that “are often internalised and set the care of the self against the duty to others.”  “Performance has no room for caring… these are things we do to ourselves and to others.”

Performativity is characterised by ventriloquism, schizophrenia and a “fabrication” both of the organisation and the individual. “Truthfulness is not the point – the point is their effectiveness” and its measure. The transformation of the organisation into an “auditable commodity” is a “game” which reproduces a “recognisable rationality which is underpinned by ‘robust procedures’, punctuated by ‘best practice’, and always ‘improving’, always looking for ‘what works’.” The organisational game involves fabricating “transparency”, through “creative accountancy” and outright “cheating”. This transparency, which is intended to reveal more of the “auditable commodity” (i.e. the organisation), “may actually result in making it more opaque, as representational artefacts are increasingly constructed with great deliberation and sophistication.”  Thus, the “educational project” (i.e. the commodity) is “left empty”.  “Effectivity rather than honesty is most valued in a performative regime.”

Ball (following Lyotard) concludes by arguing that by being commodified, knowledge is “exteriorised” and consequently “de-socialised”.  As a result, teachers are struggling with and against the effects of commodification, which

“involves a profound shift in the nature of the relationship between workers and their work – ‘service’ commitments no longer have value or meaning and professional judgement is subordinated to the requirements of performativity and marketing”. (226)

It results in a “corrosion of character” where

“The policy technologies of market, management and performativity leave no space of an autonomous or collective ethical self. These technologies have potentially profound consequences for the nature of teaching and learning and for the inner-life of the teacher.” (226)

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In my view, what Ball describes in this rich polemical essay, is capitalist work as “a form of living death”. (Dinerstein and Neary, 2002, 11) The importance for me of his article is that it eloquently extends the vocabulary that I have used to describe my own work to my family, friends and colleagues: “Schizophrenic”; “intensive work on the self”;  “de-control as a new form of control”; “an existence of calculation”; “purposes are made contradictory, motivations become blurred and self worth is uncertain.” These are all words or re-articulated versions of phrases I have used to refer to my own working life. My own life. The value of Ball’s article is an assurance that I am not alone, yet as a form of living death, I now see we are in hell together.

Yet, this is not hell and I am not dying. Ball’s article describes, and to some extent, analyses capitalist work as it appears in universities, colleges and schools. What appears is a performance of what is experienced, what is felt, and retold by teachers quoted in his article, but it is insufficient as an explanation for what actually ‘lies behind’ the performance and keeps it running. Is it really an unstoppable “epidemic” of reform ideas “‘carried’ by powerful agents, like the World Bank and the OECD”?  I think Ball is right to refer to the World Bank and OECD as ‘agents’ that are carrying out reform. However, what his article doesn’t analyse for us is the performative nature of those agents. Who are they agents for? What are they agents of? What is their role in the “game”? In fact, what is this “improvement game”?

We have to look elsewhere for a more satisfying analysis, whereupon I think we can understand performativity in three ways:

  1. Performativity as the appearance of something else
  2. Performativity as the embodiment of something else
  3. Performativity as having become something else

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“To prevent possible misunderstanding, a word. I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose [i.e., seen through rose-tinted glasses]. But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.” (Marx, 1867, Preface to Capital)

When Marx wrote this Preface to Capital, he added this paragraph so as to make very clear that reference to individuals should be understood as personifications of economic categories. This is not a matter of style, but is essential to his historical materialist method. Thus, the “capitalist” and the “worker” are personifications of the relationship between the category of ‘capital’ and that of ‘labour’.

The problem with Ball’s article, despite all its descriptive and emotive power,  is that his analysis in this paper does not extend to a discussion of the economic categories which have set the “unstoppable” technologies of reform in motion, and the “agents” are reified as the World Bank and OECD, rather than being understood themselves as personifications of capital. He does not recognise that the capitalists are in fact personifications of capital and that the “assumptive world” of “new kinds of teacher subjects” and their subjectivities, is the world and subjectivity of capital. No wonder that in this “advanced liberal” world, “value replaces values.” Lift the lid of the World Bank and look inside at all the capitalists: individuals, who are themselves simply performing their role.

If this really is “apparently unstoppable” as Ball states, we have to uncover the “determinate logic” (Postone, 1993, 285) behind this “game” or else live with the helplessness (Postone, 2006 [PDF]) instilled by Ball’s essay: truly, a form of living death. The heart still beats, but the mind and body are capital’s host.

Marx makes frequent reference to the language of performativity when critiquing political economy. 1 We learn of “masks“, “personifications” and “dramatis personae“, of which the key characters are the capitalist and the worker, each of whom perform a role in capital’s “self-valorisation of value“. These references to performativity are not simply a matter of literary flourish but relate to Marx’s scientific method of critique, which aims to distinguish between the appearance of things in their concrete form and their real nature as abstract categories that dominate us.

As Ball rightly argues, education has become a commodity, but we know from Marx that the commodity form is a fetish; it is a form of wealth presented to us through the capitalist mode of production and so to understand how education appears as a commodity we must analyse the “hidden abode of production”. (Capital, Vol. 1)

The important point for us here is that while the commodity is the “economic cell form” of capitalist society, from which everything else should be analysed, there is a special, “peculiar” commodity: that of labour power. It is special because, Marx argues, it is “a source of value”, the only commodity that can create new value for the capitalist either by extending time (i.e. lengthening the working day – which has its natural limits) or by compressing time i.e. increasing the productivity of labour through various methods of efficiency.

It is this, I would argue, that is key to understanding what lies behind Ball’s observations around the performativity of labour in education. In their performativity, teachers are enacting and gradually embodying what, in the end, amount to intended efficiencies that derive greater value their labour power. Capital’s imperative to create value from labour is at the heart of this performance. 2

To press this further, the “schizophrenia” of performativity that Ball describes can be understood as an acute manifestation of capital’s myriad of commodity forms. Reflecting on the “terror” of this ‘madness’, we see that capital is personified simultaneously by the institution and its teacher. Labour finally recognises itself as what it can only be: a form of capital, the substance value. 3 Do not confuse this with the liberal category of ‘human capital’, since this conversion of labour power into capital, is, as Ball recognises, de-humanising, evident in the “inauthentic”, “contradictory” and “ontologically insecure” existence of teachers. Capital in human form is a different thing altogether.

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I will end, for now, with a quote from Rikowski (2003), whose important article, Alien Life: Marx and the Future of the Human, 4 is a counter to the helplessness instilled by Ball’s account of performativity. Like Ball, Rikowski also studies education, but goes much further in analysing why “value replaces values” and provides a theoretical framework based on Marx for teachers to face their terrors and reclaim their soul.

“On the basis of Marx’s definition of labour-power, we can define labour- power as including not just ‘skills’ and knowledge, the foundation of much mainstream education research. It also incorporates the attitudes and personality traits essential for effective performance within the labour process. It depends, therefore, on what is included within ‘mental capabilities’. Empirical research on the recruitment process, where employers assess labour-powers, suggests ‘mental capabilities’ must include work attitudes, social attitudes and personality traits – aspects of our ‘personalities’. These, too, are incorporated within labour-power as it transforms itself into labour.

In contemporary capitalist society, education and training are elements within definite forms of labour-power’s social production. Empirically, these forms show wide variation. The significant point is that the substance of the social universe of capital (value) rests upon our labour, which in turn hinges on labour-power being transformed into labour in the labour process for the production of (im/material) commodities which incorporate value in its ‘cell form’. Labour-power (its formation and quality), rests (though not exclusively) upon education and training in contemporary capitalism. This is the real significance of education and training in capitalism today. What constitutes ‘capitalist’ schooling and training as precisely capitalist is that it is implicated in generating the substance of the social universe of capital: value. We have come full circle. It appears that we are trapped within a labyrinth bounded by the margins of capital’s universe. Thus, it seems that, to destroy this social universe for human liberation, it must be imploded. The best place to begin this project is with a critique of the strange, living commodity, labour-power.” (144-145)

Hacking in the University: Contesting the Valorisation of Academic Labour

In this article I argue for a different way of understanding the emergence of hacker culture. In doing so, I 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 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 the contradictions of the academy: vocation vs. profession; teaching vs. research; basic vs. applied research; research vs. development; private vs. public; war vs. peace; institutional autonomy vs. state dependence; scientific communalism vs. intellectual property.

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