An escape from value is an escape from the economic

In some earlier notes, I argued that Jossa’s conception of a Labour Managed Firm (a form of worker co-operative where the workers democratically divide the surplus rather than receive a wage) did not take into account the central, determining role that value plays in controlling the labour process in any organisation. I said that “What Jossa seems to overlook is that ‘value’, not the wage, mediates labour in a capitalist society.” I wrote:

“In the absence of the wage-relation i.e. the LMF, workers sell the products that they created and own, rather than sell their labour for a wage. It seems that for Jossa, the key to the capitalist firm and therefore the ‘anti-capitalist’ LMF, turns on how property relations are organised. For Jossa, freedom from capitalism is equated with owning the means of production and from that “decisive” moment, a transition from the capitalist mode of production to the socialist mode of production occurs (Jossa, 2012b:405). For Jossa, once property relations are re-organised in favour of the worker, such that the wage can be abolished, labour is no longer a commodity and its value is no longer measured in abstract labour time because “work becomes abstract when it is done in exchange for wages.” (Jossa, 2012a: 836)”

I am currently re-reading John Holloway’s book, Crack Capitalism, and in thesis nine, section four, he makes a strong case for the determinate logic of value, which I think speaks directly against Jossa’s argument for LMF co-operatives and to any form of market socialist enterprise. 1 Below, I quote at length…

“Value is what holds society together under capitalism. It is a force that nobody controls. Capitalism is composed of a huge number of independent units which produce commodities that they sell on the market. The social interconnection between people’s activities is established through the sale and purchase of commodities or, in other words, through the value of the commodities, expressed through money. Value (manifested in money) constitutes the social synthesis in capitalist society, that which holds together the many different, uncoordinated activities. The state presents itself as being the focal point of social cohesion, but in fact the state is dependent on money and can do little to influence its movement.

… Behind money stands value, the all-conquering drive of the cheap commodity, the commodity produced in the least amount of time. This is hard to resist.

… We can occupy factories, set up our alternative systems of production, but we will not be able to match the prices of capitalist commodities, we will not be able to produce things as cheaply and as quickly, and, if we were, we would probably be producing them in just the same way as the capitalists.

Value is incompatible with self-determination, or indeed with any form of conscious determination. Value is the rule of necessary labour time, of the shortest time necessary to produce a commodity. Value is controlled by nobody. Capitalists are capitalists not because they control value, but because they serve it.

How can we resist the rule of the cheap commodity and all that it brings with it, especially when the struggle to survive shapes the lives of so many people in the world? The traditional answer is that the only way is a system of planned production that would be even more efficient than capitalism and would respond to people’s real needs. Traditional socialist analysis contrasts the anarchy of the market with the rationality of central planning, but in practice central planning has never been either rational or central, and it certainly has not been an example of self-determination.

… If there is no central planning, then how do we coordinate our different processes of creation or production, if not through the market? And if we produce for the market, what distinguishes us from any other capitalist enterprise?

Whatever the crack, whatever the form of the struggle to break with capitalism, value lays siege, not just as an external force, but through the corrosive, destructive force of money. Money embodies the rationality of capitalism that stands against the non-sense of rebellion. In capitalism, it is the movement of value that determines what should be done and how it should be done: no human, not even the capitalist class, makes those determinations.

Value attacks as a force operating behind our backs, as the silent power of money, introducing cheap commodities, luring people away in the hope of escaping from poverty (the Zapatistas that migrate to find employment in Cancun, for instance). As market, it also stands against us as a palpable limit to what we can do.

Occupied factories, like the hundreds occupied in Argentina in recent years, face immediately the question of their relation to the market. In general, the factories occupied (or ‘recovered’) were faced with closure before the occupation – closure motivated by the inability of their owners to sell their products on the market. When the workers seize the factory, they are faced with the dilemma of having to produce the same commodities for sale on the market: that is the only way that they can ensure their own physical survival. It may be possible to introduce different working relations within the factory or workplace, to do away with hierarchies or introduce the rotation of tasks; it may be possible to use the workplace after working hours for political meetings or cultural activities, but all such changes (significant though they undoubtedly are) take place within the context of the pressures generated by the need to sell the products as commodities on the market. It may perhaps be possible to change the nature of the commodities produced, to produce things that are more obviously socially beneficial, but this will depend on the skills of the workers and the equipment at their disposal, and any alternative products will, in any case, normally require to be sold as commodities on the market.

The action of value may be very subtle and gradual. Fighting it is much more difficult than throwing stones at the police. Many radical groups have seen producing cooperatively for the market as an alternative to working for a capitalist company, or accepting funds from the state. It is an alternative, but at what point does the market impose itself to create the same sort of pressures as exist in any capitalist enterprise? Is there any escape?

… The point is surely that there is no purity here. In order to create a different world, we need to survive physically and, unless we cultivate our own food from the land (a real possibility in the case of peasant revolutionary groups, but difficult in the cities), this requires some sort of access to money, and money, whether it comes from external funding or crime or some sort of employment, always brings limitations and contradictions with it. The challenge is always to see to what extent we can use money without being used by it, without allowing our activities and our relations to be determined by it.

Funding can perhaps be seen as a particular way of building structures of mutual support. A more direct way of doing this is to construct links of mutual assistance between the different cracks.

… This building of links of mutual support between the different cracks in capitalist domination is sometimes seen in terms of the construction of an alternative economy or an economy of solidarity (economia solidaria). This refers to the construction of an economy that is not dominated by value or the pursuit of profit. This is an important development, but there are problems. First, the notion of an alternative economy already seems to impose a definition on the organisation of activities. If I say ‘No, I will not follow the logic of capital, I shall do something else’, then I do not consider my other-doing to be economic, but rather an escape from the economic. In addition, the notion of an alternative economy or economy of solidarity can easily obscure the fact that our other-doing is an act of rebellion, an against-and-beyond. If this against-ness is overlooked, the alternative economy can become simply a complement to capitalist production. If this is the case, then far from constituting a break in capitalist social relations, it helps to underpin them. Certainly, at the end of the day what we want is a social connection based on trust, solidarity, generosity, gift, in place of the social synthesis of value, but for the moment this can only exist as an assault on value, not as a complement to value production.

Value is the enemy, but it is an invisible enemy, the invisible hand that holds capitalism together and tears the world apart. Value creates a powerful and complex field of tension around all our attempted breaks with capitalism, in which it is difficult to draw clear lines between what is ‘revolutionary’ and what is ‘reformist’. Beyond the state, beyond our personal contradictions, it is value, the power of the market, of the cheap commodity, of money, that threatens all the time to overwhelm our cracks.”

The key to overcoming the determinate logic of value is an understanding of the “twofold character of labour according to whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange-value”, which Marx regarded as one of the two “best points in my book (Capital)” (Marx, Letter to Engels 24th August 1867). Most of Holloway’s Crack Capitalism is about the two-fold character of labour (use value and exchange value of commodities, and the corresponding concrete labour and abstract labour). Further on in the book, he reflects on the thesis on value and proposes a way to counter value:

“Going to the root of things and understanding that root as our own activity is crucial. Think back to the previous discussion of the force of value and the way in which it imposes the social synthesis upon us (thesis 9, 4). That section was very depressing to write and should be depressing to read because we feel that there is no way out. It is when we open up value and ask what it is that produces value and see that it is our own activity, our abstract labour, then the skies begin to open, we begin to see a way forward, simply because it is not a thing (value), but our own activity that is at the centre. There is a world of difference, then, between an analysis that takes value as its pivot and one (such as this) that places the dual character of labour in its centre.”

Contrary to this approach, in dismissing abstract labour as something overcome in the wage-less Labour Managed Firm, Jossa remains trapped by an economistic understanding of social relations and therefore trapped by value. The same can be said for the worker co-operative form in general. It is a transitional organisational form that moves away from attributes of capitalist labour (towards ownership of the means of production, a democratic division of surplus), but does not in itself overcome the determination of value imposed by the competition of the market.

Freedom is not the emancipation of labour, as in Jossa’s argument, but rather the emancipation from the twofold character of labour, a point also made by Postone, Neary, the Krisis group and others.

Social Science Imagination: Co-operation and education / week one reflections

I am a member of the Social Science Centre, Lincoln, and in this term’s Social Science Imagination course, we are focusing on ‘co-operation and education‘. Gary Saunders and I wrote up an account of last week’s class, which we facilitated. Each week, SSC scholars are asked to produce a reflective piece of work (just 300w or so, or a poem, drawing, whatever) so as to think about what they got out of the previous week and then bring it to class to discuss.

Below is my 300w or so reflecting on last week’s reading and discussion. The class was based around our reading of the SSC’s ‘about‘ page and the ICA’s ‘Co-operative identity, values and principles‘ statement.


It’s been a while since I have read through the general statement about the SSC (FAQ), a document I helped author over three years ago. It was written both as a response to changes in HE at the time (and that continue), as well as setting out in an aspirational way, something we wanted to create. We wrote it in a style that suggested it was already happening, that it was real, when it was in fact only real in our imaginations. In that sense, it was utopian and from the responses we’ve had from people over the years, I think it helped them imagine something different, too.  With that in mind, I was pleased to read the current version of the statement 1 and to see how close we have come to realising that utopia. We are not entirely there yet, and over the years, through praxis, we have redefined our objectives, or rather, the emphasis of those objectives has shifted at times, while remaining clear about our motivation and purpose. I still aspire to what we set out in that statement and may always be striving to realise it fully, but the process is as important as the goal and I realise now, after three years, that the SSC is part of me. I cannot imagine not working towards this utopia.

Last week’s class and in fact the whole SSI course this term is intended to regenerate and revitalise this critical, utopian process and project, creating critical space to reflect on, discuss and question our utopian, revolutionary idea of what higher education might be. Could be.

The ICA statement was chosen to help initiate this critical, dialogical process. It is a carefully worded statement that unites millions of people around the world in the co-operative movement. We have to read it as such and draw out the key terms and ideas that are embedded in this historical text. It is a set of guidelines, rather than a legal definition. It is a compass, rather than a prison we are bound to. What can we learn from it? How can the themes of autonomy, democracy, solidarity, equality, common ownership, and sustainability, etc. become critical tools that help us reflect on ourselves and our own utopian ideas for co-operative higher education?

Co-operatives, socialism and communism: Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme

“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”

Below are some notes on Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), focusing on what it says about co-operatives as a transitional form of production to post-capitalism: communism. I’m trying to get to grips with the text so as to better situate the potential of (worker) co-operatives as a transitional form of organising production and services which provide the experimental basis of a post-capitalist mode of production and the subsequent subjectivities, epistemologies, etc. that the emergence of post-capitalism (‘communism’) will give rise to.

In reading commentary elsewhere, there’s a tendency for some people to dismiss the revolutionary potential of worker co-operatives, arguing that they inevitably become disciplined, subsumed and converted by capital. There is certainly empirical evidence for this, but I think such a view is missing an important point which Marx’s Critique makes clear: Capitalism is a necessary historical condition for the mode of production that succeeds it (communism). Though worker coops might fail to maintain their radical objectives of democratic control over the means of production, they can be understood as prefigurative projects that have developed out of the historical and material conditions of capitalism. Worker coops are a dialectical response to capitalism and everything we understand about that historical mode of production. As Marx said, they “attack the groundwork” of capitalism, but they are not its negation. No single organisational form is. Furthermore, the transition to post-capitalism is inevitably gradual since the mode of production, according to Marx’s tradition of historical materialism, also ‘produces’ who we are and how we think. In that sense, we are capitalism. Several hundred years of being conditioned by capitalism cannot be rejected or put aside during a brief revolutionary uprising or indeed the constitution of a co-operative.

In some respects, attributes of communism are already here: the production of ‘free software‘ is a good example, I think. There are many examples of collective efforts to practice new forms of social relations that are not mediated directly by the capitalist production of value. The Social Science Centre, in which I am involved, is one of them. Of course, these are made possible, in part, because its members subsist through capitalist work elsewhere, but such efforts are experiments for exploring the possibilities of new forms of social relations. They are often transient, but collectively and gradually, have a pedagogical purpose in exploring the possibilities of alternative historical, material conditions and therefore new forms of subjectivity, knowledge and culture. Individually, I don’t think we should expect too much of them but rather engage them in critique as Marx was doing with the Gotha Programme . Collectively and over time, they are exploring and developing the conditions for a post-capitalist mode of production and social relations. To use Marx’s metaphor, they are a form of midwifery for a new mode of production to emerge from the “womb” of capitalism.

Another observation I had when reading the text is that Marx is relentless and steadfast in adhering to his scientific critique of capitalism. There are to be no compromises and much of his Critique of the Gotha Programme is an attack on the development of state socialism because he knew it could only be another form of liberal capitalism. For anyone to maintain Marx’s critical integrity is very difficult, not only to comprehend in the first place, but to commit to against popular (liberal) criticism , the seduction of capitalism, and what may appear to be the good intentions of the Left which are, in fact, only operating at the level of appearances, rather than social, scientific substance.

Section One

The Critique is a late text by Marx, which he described as “marginal notes” on the draft programme of the United Workers’ Party of Germany.  It is a scathing, short text, showing little regard for the version of socialism that the Gotha Programme outlines. It is regarded as one of the key documents where he described characteristics of a future post-capitalist mode of production: communism. On a number of occasions, he also discusses the role of co-operatives in the gradual transition from capitalism to communism.

In the text, it is clear that the capitalist mode of production is a necessary pre-condition for the communist mode of production. Marx states that “in present capitalist society the material, etc., conditions have at last been created which enable and compel the workers to lift this social curse.” In this respect, capitalism is both a curse and a force that develops the potential, unique in history, for self-determination.

What distinguishes the two modes of capitalist and communist production?

From Marx’s body of work, we can say that the capitalist mode of production has the primary purpose of creating value (‘wealth’) and it is a result of this imperative that ‘culture’ and other aspects of social life appear. It is a social, ‘co-operative‘ mode of production where labour power is employed to produce products/services (‘commodities’) for the purpose of exchange rather than direct use by the workers. The products are bought to be used by other workers (in their role as ‘consumers’), who likewise produce products/services for the purpose of exchange, and so on.

In this mode of production, the labour of an individual is not direct labour (Marx refers to it as ‘indirect’) that results in the exchange of another product of labour of equal value. In the capitalist mode of production, where workers do not own and control the means of production in common, they must negotiate the value of their labour power with the owners of the means of production (‘capitalists’), whose role and imperative it is to create additional, surplus value out of the labour power of the worker. Since the worker does not receive a wage that is equal in value to the value of their labour power, the money  they exchange (as an concrete representation of the abstraction of ‘value’) for the product of others is not a direct (i.e. equivalent) abstraction of the true value of their labour power in exchange for the true value of another worker’s labour power. Both workers have been paid less than the true value of their labour power and therefore the exchange value of the transaction does not equate to the use value of the worker’s labour power as a commodity itself.

To try to offer a simplified example:

Bob, who produces chairs is paid £10 for one hour’s work which his employer anticipates is worth £20 to them upon exchange of the chair that Bob produces. In this case, Bob’s labour power is actually worth £20 (the price of the product will be higher still) but is forcibly undersold to the employer who is under constant pressure to realise a surplus for a number of reasons, one of which is to re-invest surplus capital in new methods of production so as to remain competitive in the marketplace. Likewise, Bob sells his labour in a competitive labour market and is under constant pressure to identify the full value of his labour power so as to sell it at the highest price.

Likewise, Alice, who produces coats, is paid £5 an hour and her employer calculates that her labour power is actually worth £15 to them. Like Bob’s chairs, the final price of the coat is much higher and takes into account all other costs involved in production as well as the need to realise an overall surplus. A reliable income of surplus value can be achieved by her employer if Alice and her co-workers are consistently paid less than the true value of their labour power.

When Bob buys one of Alice’s coats, he uses some of the money from his wage. The money (cash or electronic) is the concrete result of the abstract exchange of value which takes place between Bob and his employer. Bob transfers that value to Alice’s employer, who has also undertaken an exchange of money for her labour power.  In Bob’s purchase of Alice’s product, the relationship between all four parties can be described like this:

Bob’s employer pays Bob for his labour power, who pays Alice’s employer for the coat, who pays Alice for her labour power.

However, the relationship between Bob and Alice, who may live on opposite sides of the world, is not direct, not because they don’t physically hand over the coat for money or barter chairs for coats, but because Bob and Alice’s employers have intervened in the exchange by under-valuing the true value of their labour power.

As such, labour power is no longer being exchanged as an equivalent, but rather the product of labour power, the commodity is exchanged as an equivalent. There is, what we might call a ‘corruption’ in what could be, under a different (proto-communist) mode of production, an exchange of equal values measured by the equal standard of labour rather than the equal value of the commodity. As such Alice’s labour power would be a direct equivalent of Bob’s labour power.

“…the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form.”

In this transitional phase from capitalism to communism, the remnant of equivalence still remains from the capitalist mode of production, but it is an equivalence not mediated by capital but by labour which owns the means of production. An individual firm operating in this way is simply a situation where “workers are their own capitalists” and remain subject to the forces of the competitive markets. However this changes when the majority of enterprises in society are run as producer co-operatives.

“Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labor employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labor no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of total labor.”

In his Critique, Marx recognises that a new mode of production cannot develop apart from the existing mode of production, nor will it occur suddenly. Communism emerges slowly from the “womb” of capitalism.

“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”

Recognising this transition, Marx offers some examples of what intermediary changes might take place prior to the establishing of full communism.

“Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.

Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labor, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption.

But as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form”

The “deductions” Marx refers to can be generally understood as contributions (taxes) to administration, public services and welfare. In the transition from capitalism to communism, he sees some of those contributions diminishing and some increasing:

“First, the general costs of administration not belonging to production. This part will, from the outset, be very considerably restricted in comparison with present-day society, and it diminishes in proportion as the new society develops. Second, that which is intended for the common satisfaction of needs, such as schools, health services, etc. From the outset, this part grows considerably in comparison with present-day society, and it grows in proportion as the new society develops. Third, funds for those unable to work, etc., in short, for what is included under so-called official poor relief today.”

As I understand it, in such a society, there would be no need for the products of this mode of production to be held privately, because no-one is attempting to undercut the value of labour power in order to create a private surplus of value. All such goods and services would effectively be owned in common by individual workers and what we think of as ‘exchange’ would be recognised not as an act of transferring value, but merely as an exercise in administration and planning so as to avoid scarcity. In effect, exchange as understood under the capitalist mode of production would be abolished and labour would exist “directly as a component part of total labour.” Marx calls this ‘direct’ mode of production, communism. Arguably, this is already in practice among ‘free software‘ developers.

It is fundamental to Marx’s historical materialist method of analysis and critical theory that we understand that the specific historical mode of production gives rise to culture and therefore is the basis of human ideas. In a transition from one mode of production to another, people will assume existing principles hold true despite growing evidence of their contradictory nature. Discussing the equivalence of labour power, Marx identifies the principle of “equal right” as such a principle that will initially remain:

“Hence, equal right here is still in principle — bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case.”

Marx sees the principle of “equal right” as a “bourgeois limitation” that will gradually be stigmatized. He sees this as an inevitable defect in the “first phase of communist society”

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

In this transitional phase, “the right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.” Here, 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 same way, Marx attacks the Gotha Programme’s assertion of the “fair distribution of the proceeds of labour”. He argues that what we might consider “fair” today, is a result of the capitalist mode of production. As above, he is arguing that legal principles such as “fair” are created within the economic context of the existing mode of production and that what might appear “fair” today, should not be assumed so for post-capitalist society. He regarded such terms as “dogmas, ideas which in a certain period had some meaning but have now become obsolete verbal rubbish”

Here, Marx also makes an interesting distinction about the relationship between production and distribution.

Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution.

Nothing has changed….!

Further on in the text, Marx discusses the the identity of the working class and its relation to the nation state. He emphasises the need for national solidarity while recognising that capital is transnational: “Every businessman knows that German trade is at the same time foreign trade.” If we relate this to the the formation of producer co-operatives it underlines the need for co-operation and solidarity at both national and international levels. Just as capital is continually trying to operate globally without restriction through international treaty and law, a co-operative working class movement must pursue the same at both the diplomatic, legislative and economic levels.

Section Two

In section two of the Critique, Marx discusses wages in an attempt to remind the United Worker’s Party that their proposed programme is yet again confused and taking retrograde steps by asserting an “iron law of wages”. Marx refers to his earlier work in scientifically analysing waged labour:

“there has asserted itself in our party the scientific understanding that wages are not what they appear to be — namely, the value, or price, of labor—but only a masked form for the value, or price, of labor power. Thereby, the whole bourgeois conception of wages hitherto, as well as all the criticism hitherto directed against this conception, was thrown overboard once and for all. It was made clear that the wage worker has permission to work for his own subsistence—that is, to live, only insofar as he works for a certain time gratis for the capitalist (and hence also for the latter’s co-consumers of surplus value); that the whole capitalist system of production turns on the increase of this gratis labor by extending the working day, or by developing the productivity—that is, increasing the intensity or labor power, etc.; that, consequently, the system of wage labor is a system of slavery, and indeed of a slavery which becomes more severe in proportion as the social productive forces of labor develop, whether the worker receives better or worse payment.”

Clearly Marx is exasperated here with the lack of understanding and development of his critique of political economy, published just eight years earlier. He criticises the Party, which “following in the wake of the bourgeois economists, took the appearance for the essence of the matter.” Today, he would say that nothing has changed!

Section Three

Section three focuses on the role of the state and the role of class struggle. The Gotha Programme places an emphasis on state assistance in setting up worker co-operatives. Agency is therefore assumed to be in the hands of the state rather than the workers’ struggle. Marx responds:

“Instead of arising from the revolutionary process of transformation of society, the “socialist organization of the total labor” “arises” from the “state aid” that the state gives to the producers’ co-operative societies and which the state, not the workers, “calls into being”.”

Marx is clear that the need for workers themselves to “revolutionize the present conditions of production and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid.” The meaning and purpose of co-operatives is, we might say, expedient or pedagogical. They are a step towards communism and away from the capitalist state, but should not be confused with a form of communism itself. They provide the conditions for communism to historically, materially and epistemologically emerge.

“But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not proteges either of the governments or of the bourgeois.”

Section Four

The final section of the Critique focuses on freedom and democracy. The Gotha Programme advocates “the free basis of the state”, which Marx questions rhetorically: “Free state – what is this?”

He accuses the German Workers’ party of treating the state as independent of the mode of production, asserting that the state is “a fiction”.

“…instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.

And what of the riotous misuse which the program makes of the words “present-day state”, “present-day society”, and of the still more riotous misconception it creates in regard to the state to which it addresses its demands?

“Present-day society” is capitalist society, which exists in all civilized countries, more or less free from medieval admixture, more or less modified by the particular historical development of each country, more or less developed. On the other hand, the “present-day state” changes with a country’s frontier. It is different in the Prusso-German Empire from what it is in Switzerland, and different in England from what it is in the United States. The “present-day state” is therefore a fiction.

Nevertheless, the different states of the different civilized countries, in spite or their motley diversity of form, all have this in common: that they are based on modern bourgeois society, only one more or less capitalistically developed. They have, therefore, also certain essential characteristics in common. In this sense, it is possible to speak of the “present-day state” in contrast with the future, in which its present root, bourgeois society, will have died off.”

In this sense, the state as a social form, independent from capitalist society is “a fiction”, but the capitalist state as an abstraction that has essential characteristics shared across national borders, is real: a real abstraction which appears in the form of national governments.

In this section of the Critique, Marx also attempts to discuss how a future communist society would perform the social functions currently handled by the state (“the government machine”).

“What transformation will the state undergo in communist society? In other words, what social functions will remain in existence there that are analogous to present state functions? This question can only be answered scientifically, and one does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem by a thousand-fold combination of the word ‘people’ with the word ‘state’.

Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

It’s worth nothing, too, that Marx views social change without regard for national borders. He complains that the Gotha Programme is simply appealing for what has already been realised elsewhere. For the German liberal socialist, the future already exists, only it is elsewhere (Switzerland!).

“Now the program does not deal with this nor with the future state of communist society.

Its political demands contain nothing beyond the old democratic litany familiar to all: universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular rights, a people’s militia, etc. They are a mere echo of the bourgeois People’s party, of the League of Peace and Freedom. They are all demands which, insofar as they are not exaggerated in fantastic presentation, have already been realized. Only the state to which they belong does not lie within the borders of the German Empire, but in Switzerland, the United States, etc. This sort of “state of the future” is a present-day state, although existing outside the “framework” of the German Empire.”

Although written nearly 150 years ago, the same could be said of much political activism today.

Marx is scathing at this point in the Critique, and accuses the German Workers’ Party of demanding a democratic republic from what he regards as a military dictatorship, “a state which is nothing but a police-guarded military despotism, embellished with parliamentary forms”. Only in their imagination could their demands be met through the instruments of the bourgeois state.

The last few paragraphs of the Critique focus on the demand for free, public elementary education. Marx argues that “free” education is not free but paid for through taxation of the rich and he equates the demand for free education to the existing administration of free criminal justice, which “is to be had free everywhere.” Marx objects to “elementary education by the state”, preferring the American system whereby education is regulated by the state, rather than “appointing the state as the educator of the people!” Rather, “the state has need, on the contrary, of a very stern education by the people.”

“But the whole program, for all its democratic clang, is tainted through and through by the Lassallean sect’s servile belief in the state, or, what is no better, by a democratic belief in miracles; or rather it is a compromise between these two kinds of belief in miracles, both equally remote from socialism.”


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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