What is ‘academic labour’?

If the university is a means for the production of knowledge, determined by capital, the mode of production, I also need to be clear about the role and nature of labour within the contemporary university.

The term ‘academic labour‘ is widely used, but I have not found an adequate analysis of its form and content in the context of a university in a capitalist society. ‘Academic labour’ is usually synonymous with ‘work within an academic context’ or ‘work undertaken by someone called an academic’. This is not surprising. Discussing labour more broadly, Neary and Dinerstein (2002: 249) have argued that, “both the understanding and the critique have been undermined to such an extent that labour has been abandoned as an object of critical analysis or a subject on which to reconsider the project for social emancipation.”

What then, is my overall purpose of an analysis of ‘academic labour’? Unlike most discussion around academic labour, my primary intention is not to improve or fight for academic labour but rather to abolish the capitalist form of academic labour and out of this produce a new form of university. This follows the reading of Marx that writers such as Postone and Heinrich offer, both of whom understand capitalism to constitute a “social totality under the conditions of capitalist commodity production” (Heinrich, 2005) From this critical standpoint, labour, as the source and substance of capital’s value, should not be reified. Capitalist labour i.e. the specific, historical form of labour determined by the capitalist mode of production, should be negated, abolished, and overcome. In doing so, we transition to a different form  – a difference paradigm – of social knowledge production and exchange, determined by a new form of social wealth. A new social science. 1

Of course, struggle over the contemporary role and conditions of academic labour remains vitally important in providing us with space to critique academic labour more fundamentally, but we should recognise that circumstances for academic labour are not improving and that a fundamentally different form of critique is required.

Below are my notes towards a better understanding of what characterises ‘academic labour’ in a capitalist society. I am trying to think in general, systemic terms. There are no doubt exceptions to what I am discussing here but those exceptions are not characteristic of the general social process of academic labour.

The contract

An ‘academic’ is a person who is employed by an organisation (usually a university) on an ‘academic contract’. This contract is distinguished from non-academic contracts within a university, often referred to as ‘professional staff’, ‘support staff’, ‘administrative staff’, and so on. The primary responsibilities of a person employed as an academic are a mixture, to a lesser or greater degree, of teaching and research.

The detail of academic contracts differs between institutions, but within a single institution, the contract for a particular grade of academic will be standardised and on the whole not deviated from. That is to say, for example, the ‘Senior Lecturer’ grade academic is a category applied to many individuals employed at that level of work. The employment contract is a form of abstraction. Within the structure of the university, ‘Joss Winn’ is a ‘Senior Lecturer’, and in that respect, the contractual expectations of me are the same as any other Senior Lecturer. Therefore, a ‘Senior Lecturer’ is a way of determining an equivalence between individuals employed at that grade. It is rare (and inconsequential here) that academics are pro-actively ‘head hunted’ for their specific attributes and provided with a personalised employment contract. More often, a vacancy is identified and via an application process, a person is selected to fulfil the abstract role of ‘Senior Lecturer’. From an institutional point-of-view, academic labour at every grade and across grades is abstracted both quantitatively and qualitatively, such that we can say that “The University of X has 300 Senior Lecturers, 200 Readers, 400 Lectures, and 100 Professors.” The management of these contracts is undertaken by a ‘Human Resources’ department. To paraphrase Werner Bonefeld, under capitalism, humanity has become the resource, rather than the project.

The wage

The academic contract is an agreement between the university and the individual for the exchange of productive work for a wage. In almost every case, the individual needs the wage in order for them, and often their family, to subsist. The academic is ‘free’ to seek employment elsewhere, but they are not free from the necessity of a wage. Similarly, the university is ‘free’ to employ the person they deem most suitable for the vacancy (from the limited pool of applicants), but they are not free from the necessity of requiring labour. The wage is therefore a necessary exchange between the university and the individual. Academic labour must be sold and academic labour must be bought.

Labour-power and labour

A university purchases academic labour which an individual sells to the university in exchange for a contracted wage. Before we examine what is being sold, we might ask what is actually being purchased? Conventionally, we might say that certain skills, attributes, and human potential are being purchased via the wage. Joss Winn is employed because he is skilled at X i.e. he can do X. The recruitment process defines and determines what is being purchased in concrete terms: An academic is required to undertake teaching and/or research in a specific discipline. The academic should be of the Senior Lecturer type. The post is advertised with a ‘Job Description’ and ‘Person Specification’. Applications are initially reviewed and a smaller number of applicants are interviewed. At each stage the nature of the labour being purchased is clarified i.e. the potential application of the labour is made more concrete. Therefore, we move from an generalisation of labour as human potential to concrete attributes of applied labour.

When Marx referred to labour as a commodity that is bought and sold through the wage, he was specifically referring to ‘labour power’, i.e. creative human potential, which is applied as ‘labour’. As Fine & Saad-Filho (2010: 20-21) state:

The most important distinguishing feature of capitalism is that labour power becomes a commodity. The capitalist is the purchaser, the worker is the seller, and the price of labour power is the wage. The worker sells labour power to the capitalist, who determines how that labour power should be exercised as labour to produce particular commodities.

In this way, the individual exchanges their human ‘labour power’ for a wage, and the required application of ‘labour power’ as ‘labour’ is defined by the employment contract. It is my potential to undertake labour (labour power) and the specific application of that potential within the given context that I work that we refer to as ‘labour’. I may change the nature of my employment and sell my labour power which is applied through a different contractual obligation e.g. prior to becoming an academic, I was a technologist. On changing roles within the university, my labour power did not change upon the signing of my new contract, only the way that it should be applied as a form of academic labour rather than the labour required of a technologist on a non-academic contract.

The duality of labour

In a capitalist society, most people must sell their capacity to work for a wage in order for them and their dependants to subsist. We can assume that people work because they have this necessity for a wage. People are compelled to sell their labour. I’m not going to go into detail about why they are compelled to sell their labour. Here, I want to examine the form of the labour that is being sold as a necessity, in particular, ‘academic labour’. Conventionally, most people, and certainly most academics, think of their ‘work’, rather than their ‘labour’. The term, ‘labour’ conjures up a physiological action often associated with ‘manual work’ e.g. farm labourers, construction site labourers. This ‘manual work’ is often distinguished from ‘intellectual work’ or ‘creative work’. However, what unites all of these conceptions of work is their necessity and that something is sold for a wage. As discussed above, that common thing that is sold as a commodity is labour power which is contractually applied as labour. However, our conception of labour does not end there. Marx showed that labour under capitalism is comprised of two aspects: ‘Concrete labour’ and ‘Abstract labour’.

Concrete labour

Concrete labour is the physiological work that individuals do. As I sit and write these notes on a Wednesday morning at my place of employment, I am clearly performing this physiological, concrete, ‘real’ form of labour, for which I am seemingly being paid. Just as the farm labourer on the outskirts of the city is seemingly being paid for their concrete labour, too. On one level our concrete labour is different, since I am sitting and typing and the farm labourer is tending to animals or crops. There are intellectual and manual aspects to both of our work. We are both required to think about what we are doing. As I said before, as a critical category, ‘labour’ has little to do with the content (intellectual or manual) of the undertaking, but rather its configuration or form determined by the capitalist mode of production.

So, while the content of our labour looks and indeed is, on one level, different, it is also the same in that the application of our labour, undertaken contractually for our employer, performs useful work. The measure of how useful an individual’s work might be is another matter. In general, we can assume that if people remain in employment, they are undertaking ‘concrete labour’ which overall is deemed useful by their employer and appears to meet the expectations of their agreed contract. However, we shall see that performing useful work is not enough to warrant continued employment.

In summary, one aspect of labour (and the most intuitive understanding of ‘labour’) is that it is a concrete action performed by people that produces useful outcomes, regardless of whether those outcomes are material or immaterial. 2. The other aspect of labour in capitalist society is its abstract form.

Abstract labour

Just as I have noted that academic labour, like all labour, can be discussed more abstractly in terms of the institutional employment contract, on a wider, social level, academic labour is part of a social process of production and exchange.

Abstract labour is the social reduction of individual concrete labour to ‘value’. In order to determine the value of the labour commodity the labouring of an academic must also be understood more abstractly within society as the equivalent of other forms of individual labour. This equivalence is realised when the product of that individual labour is exchanged (usually and eventually for money). If the labour does not produce anything that is ultimately exchanged, then it is not specifically capitalist labour. For example, I might ‘labour’ usefully in my garden, but the results of that are enjoyed for my own pleasure rather than exchanged, so it is not labour as I am addressing it in these notes. Similarly, I might cook my family a meal, but that cooking is not labour that produces a product or renders a service intended for exchange, so while it may require ‘work’ or ‘labour’, it is not capitalist labour. What uniquely identifies the commodity of labour in capitalist society is that the purpose of the labour is to produce an object of use or render a service deemed useful that is undertaken primarily for exchange. It is this objective of exchange that determines whether the labour has both abstract and concrete qualities. As Heinrich states: “Abstract labour is a relation of social validation that is constituted in exchange.” (2012: 50)

Identifying this abstract aspect of labour is not a mental abstraction in the way that I am called a ‘Senior Lecturer’ along with hundreds of other people, but rather a ‘real abstraction’ derived from actual human behaviour. Abstract labour is what makes all labour common in terms of how it produces value. It is the substance by which value is determined in exchange.

Value forming abstract labour is therefore a reduction of different types of concrete labour: It is a reduction of labour to socially necessary labour time. All labour throughout history occurs in time, but the value of capitalist labour is measured socially by time. As an average, this measurement of productivity changes constantly. It is also a reduction of various use values to social use values – “use values for others” (Heinrich quoting Marx, 2012: 51); and finally it is a reduction of labour to an average level of skill which also determines its value. In this regard, the labour of a Professor should realise more value than a Senior Lecturer over the same amount of time.

The commodity

On its own, concrete labour whose product is not exchanged, creates only a ‘use value’. Such a product is, of course, useful to the person who laboured over it, but this private form of labour does not constitute the mass of social labour in capitalist society. Concrete labour whose product is exchanged in a social process realises value in the exchange process, ultimately in the form of money which acts as a universal equivalence of all value. The substance of that value is therefore not the individual, concrete labour, but rather the abstract aspect of labour purchased by a wage with the intention of exchanging its useful outcome. That outcome is a ‘commodity’ and is characterised as having a ‘use value’, and an ‘exchange value’. Only when the commodity produced by labour is exchanged does it produce ‘value’. A product of labour may be useful, but it cannot be called a commodity unless it is intended for exchange and is therefore a value-producing product or service. Whether a real, tangible object is produced or a service rendered, both are commodities if they are exchanged. In that sense, commodities (material, intellectual, products and services) are values with a common, “crystalised” substance: abstract labour.

Productive and unproductive labour

Does academic labour produce commodities? It sounds strange to think of the results of the outcomes of teaching and research in this way. Conventionally, we think of commodities as goods that are bought and sold and in the financial markets, commodities range from crude oil to silver to sugar, but appear nothing like the immediate outcomes of academic labour.

A way to determine whether academic labour produces commodities or not is to examine whether it is ‘productive labour’ or ‘unproductive labour’.

From the standpoint of my private, concrete labour that produces something useful (a ‘use value’), I consider my labour to be productive. I cook a meal or mend my bike and I can personally say that my labour has been ‘productive’. However, from the standpoint of the capitalist production process, which aims to produce value (‘surplus value’ in the form of profit), such labour is ‘unproductive’. Yes, my cooking of a meal and mending of my bike might ensure that I subsist and can therefore arrive at work and perform my academic labour, but I only have a bike and food in my cupboards because I have sold my academic labour as a commodity in the first place in order to buy food and transport. In themselves, so-called ‘labour’ such as cooking food for oneself and repairing one’s bike does not constitute the social mode of production. As Heinrich states: “Whether my labor is productive is not dependent upon the character of the use value produced, but upon whether I produce a commodity that also contains surplus value.” (2012: 122) Labour is therefore considered ‘productive’ if it takes place within a production process that produces value (‘surplus value’) and as we have seen such value is produced through the exchange of commodities, which are ‘containers’ of ‘crystalised’ abstract labour.

The question remains: Does academic labour (generally speaking, the activities of teaching and research), produce commodities? Or put another way, is it ‘productive labour’? The nature of teaching and research differs across different disciplines. The every-day work of an English lecturer is not exactly the same as the work of researcher at CERN and both differ again from the work of a Prof. of Contemporary Dance. However, to distinguish between the specificity of the daily routines of each type of academic is to focus on the content of their labour rather than its form. If we return to the form of academic labour, being determined by the sale of labour power as a commodity for a wage that is applied as labour as agreed by contract, then we can say that the form of labour of each respective academic is the same. Each individual is paid to produce use-values i.e. new knowledge usually expressed most immediately in the form of articles and other media. As a use-value, that new knowledge is ultimately exchanged in various ways: it may be taught to students in a classroom, it may be published in a journal or book, it may be ‘transferred’ to industry, etc. If the use-values that academics produce were not eventually exchanged, there would be no benefit to society, no ‘knowledge economy’, and no justification of higher education as an ‘engine for economic growth’. Sharing knowledge is not intrinsically a capitalist activity, but sharing knowledge within a society determined by the capitalist mode of production is invariably ‘productive labour’ resulting in the production of commodities and therefore value.

not only material products but services, insofar as they are sold, are commodities. In a capitalist theater, the actors are therefore just as much “productive laborers” as steelworkers who work in a capitalist steel mill. Whether or not a particular article is “really” useful for the reproduction of society also does not play any role in determining its character as a commodity. A luxury yacht, a video commercial, or tanks are all commodities if they find a buyer. And if these are produced under capitalist conditions, the labor expended during their production is “productive labor.” (Heinrich, 2012: 122)

If the majority of wage labour in capitalist societies is productive labour, what characterises unproductive labour? Heinrich shows that the sale of the labour-power commodity for a wage does not automatically mean that the labour will be productive. He gives the example of a restaurant owner who employs a private cook. The restaurant owner pays a wage to the cook, but the product of the cooking, although useful, is not then sold on, but rather consumed by their employer. With this example, Heinrich highlights how the wage for the cook is money which is spent, whereas the wage for cooks at his restaurant is money which is advanced, i.e. the money paid as a wage at the restaurant is only paid with the expectation of producing more money through the sale of food to diners. It is the money advanced to run the restaurant and make a profit which allows the owner to spend his surplus on employing a private cook. The restaurant cooks produce commodities (‘use-values’ + ‘exchange values’), whereas the private cook ‘merely’ produces a use-value.

We can understand academic labour in the same way. Is the wage that we are paid spent or advanced by our institutions? Is our labour intended to produce use-values for exchange so as to produce surplus value? Is our wage full compensation for every minute of our work or is the intention that the money advanced via our wage is less than the true value of our work, such that a surplus can at some point be made? The question comes down to whether academics are exploited (i.e. they are paid less than the value they produce). If academics are exploited, then our wage must be money advanced so as to produce surplus value and that value can only be produced through the exchange (i.e. sale) of commodities which we produce.

exploitation does not mean a particularly bad or miserable state of affairs, but that workers create a larger sum of value than that which they receive as wages. (Heinrich, 2012: 120)

It is perhaps through an analysis of exploitation that more common discussions around the conditions of academic labour can be combined with the type of analysis I am attempting here. However, a focus on the conditions of academic labour should not be confused with Marx’s category of exploitation, which is solely concerned with the question of whether the wage is spent or advanced, whether the labour is unproductive or productive and whether it produces merely use-values or surplus value. I think most people would agree that in this sense academic labour is productive labour.

Subsumption

A final category that I want to consider in these notes on academic labour is the extent to which the work of academics is subsumed by the capitalist mode of production. This question asks how integrated is academic labour into the capitalist valorisation process? Do we exist on the fringe? Is there anything left of our early guild-form of labour? Are we still undertaking a form of labour that is yet to be fully subsumed by capital? This also asks the question: As the institutional form of academic labour, is the university a means of production for capital?

Marx and later writers use the categories of ‘formal subsumption’ and ‘real subsumption’ under capital, when addressing such questions. These categories relate to the method and extent of the exploitation of labour and therefore the value such exploitation produces. Formal subsumption is the basis for real subsumption so we should look at it first.

Formal subsumption refers to the change whereby people ‘decide’ (usually out of necessity) to go to work for a wage rather than work for themselves and draw from the surplus of goods or money they make. When we work for a wage under capitalist conditions (and ‘wages’ only exist under capitalism), the person, people, organisation (‘the capitalist’) paying the wage expects to generate a surplus on the money advanced as a wage. As we saw above, if the money was simply spent on paying for labour without expectation of a greater return, value would not be produced and the business would collapse without being extended loans, grants, charity, etc. In its simplest form, wage-labour therefore refers to the formal subsumption of labour under capital. The value created by this labour is ‘absolute surplus value’ in that the profit made is simply whatever the capitalist can make above what they paid out in the production process. Because the costs of capital are relatively fixed over a given period, the main variable is the price of labour. A way of ensuring that the labour is ‘cheaper’, is to make the person work longer for the same wage. This method has its limits due to the number of hours in day, the need for rest and, of course, the resistance that workers have shown to increasing their hours of employment.

Real subsumption refers to the next stage in the subsumption of labour under capital. In many countries, employment laws won through the struggle of labour, limit the profitabilty of formal subsumption. Those limits are implicitly understood and so real subsumption becomes the default method of exploiting labour by capital.  This latter form of subsumption produces ‘relative surplus value’ and is tied to the productivity of labour and its overall impact on the cost of subsistence, the price of wages and the relative amount of surplus value that can be generated without correspondingly increasing the nominal wage (i.e. money exchanged for labour). Real subsumption points to the fact that real wages, (i.e.purchasing power), can rise and fall, relative to the productivity of labour and therefore the amount of surplus value produced is also relative to both the nominal and real wage, the cost of fixed capital, the productivity of labour, etc. What this means is that even when the standard of living increases, the exploitation of labour can also be increasing. Heinrich (2012: 120) explains:

As an effect of the increase in productivity, a rise in the standard of liv­ing of the working class has accompanied an increase of the surplus value appropriated by the capitalist. A decline in the value of labor-power si­multaneous to an increase of the surplus value produced by individual labor-power means that the rate of surplus value s/v, and with it the ex­ploitation of labor-power, has increased. Increased exploitation (meaning that a greater portion of the workday consists of surplus labor) and an increased standard of living for the working class are therefore not mutu­ally exclusive…. The rate of exploitation is not mea­sured by the standard of living, but by the rate of surplus value. It is quite possible that a rise in the standard of living and shortening of labor-time accompanies an increase in surplus value and the rate of surplus value.

Again, this suggests that a struggle over the conditions and benefits of academic labour, while very important, does not necessarily entail an overcoming of the determinate logic of the form of that labour (i.e. concrete and abstract labour). The capitalist mode of production and its sole purpose to produce surplus value, can continue, at least periodically, even when concessions are made to workers and the conditions of life seem to be improving. It is during periods of crisis that the limits of the real subsumption of labour under capital are revealed. The results of efforts to improve the conditions of academic labour will remain transient, forever subject to constraint, roll-back and re-configuration, all the time labour is subsumed under capitalism.

Concluding notes

What I think these notes show is that ‘academic labour’ is an illusion. It is a distinction that refers to the content of labour, rather than its form. It is a term that is reified as something concrete and particular – something special, and from this standpoint ‘academic labour’ becomes something we struggle for, rather than against. Adopting this approach, the feeling of helplessness can become overwhelming.

If, rather, we focus our critique on the form of academic labour, we find that an academic contract or a non-academic contract refers to the same dual qualities of labour: commodity-producing concrete and abstract labour. By focusing on the form of labour, rather than its content, we can only critique it rather than reify it. What is there to reify when we uncover the capitalist mode of production and the inhuman role and purpose of labour?

To focus on the form of labour, rather than its content, unites all wage workers in solidarity rather than setting us against each other in terms of skills, experience, opportunity, achievements and recognition. Such a critique of ‘academic labour’ can only lead to the negation of academic labour, first conceptually, and then, through further critique and struggle, in practice towards a different form of social wealth, which is not driven by the imperative of the production of value at all costs.