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.

The university as a worker co-operative: Labour, property and pedagogy

Abstract of a paper accepted for the ‘Governing Academic Life‘ conference.

UPDATE 16th June 2014: My paper for this conference is available here.

We are witnessing an “assault” on universities (Bailey and Freedman, 2011) and the future of higher education and its institutions is being “gambled.” (McGettigan, 2013) For many years now, we have been warned that our institutions are in “ruins” (Readings, 1997). We campaign for the “public university” (Holmwood, 2011) but in the knowledge that we work for private corporations, where academic labour is increasingly subject to the regulation of performative technologies (Ball, 2003) and where the means of knowledge production is being consolidated under the control of an executive. We want the cops off our campus but lack a form of institutional governance that gives teachers and students a right to the university. (Bhandar, 2013)

Outside the university, there is an institutional form that attempts to address issues of ownership and control over the means of production and constitute a radical form of democracy among those involved. Worker co-operatives are a form of ‘producer co-operative’ constituted on the values of autonomy, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity (Co-operatives UK, nd). In most cases the assets (the means of production) of the co-operative are held under ‘common ownership’, a social form of property that goes beyond the distinction between private and public (Footprint and Seeds for Change, 2012)

In this talk, I will begin by discussing recent work by academics and activists to identify the advantages and issues relating to co-operative forms of higher education. I will then focus in particular on the ‘worker co-operative’ organisational form and question its applicability and suitability to the governance of and practices within higher educational institutions. Finally, I will align the values and principles of worker co-ops with the critical pedagogic theory of Student as Producer (Neary, 2009, 2010a, 2010b)

References

Bailey, Michael and Freedman, Des (2011) The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, Pluto Press.

Ball, Stephen J. (2003) The teacher’s soul and the terror of performativity, Journal of Education Policy, Vol. 18:2, pp.215-228.

Bhandar, Brenna (2013) A Right to the University, London Review of Books blog, Retrieved 17th February 2014. http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/12/10/brenna-bhandar/a-right-to-the-university/

Co-operatives UK (nd) The worker co-operative code, Retrieved 17th February 2014. http://www.uk.coop/workercode

Footprint and Seeds of Change (2012) How to set up a Workers’ Co-op, Radical Routes. Retrieved 17th February 2014. http://www.uk.coop/workercode

Holmwood, John (2011) A Manifesto for the Public University, Bloomsbury Academic.

McGettigan, Andrew (2013) The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education, Pluto Press.

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.

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

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

Reserve army of labour

The Machine and Unemployment by Paul Herzel c.1935
The Machine and Unemployment by Paul Herzel c.1935

“…it is capitalistic accumulation itself that constantly produces, and produces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent, a relativity redundant population of labourers, i.e., a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the self-expansion of capital, and therefore a surplus population… It is the absolute interest of every capitalist to press a given quantity of labour out of a smaller, rather than a greater number of labourers, if the cost is about the same. In the latter case, the outlay of constant capital increases in proportion to the mass of labour set in action; in the former that increase is much smaller. The more extended the scale of production, the stronger this motive. Its force increases with the accumulation of capital.” (Marx, Capital Vol. 1)

Wikipedia: Reserve army of labour

“…to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time…” (Marx, Grundrisse, 705)

“Marx contrasts value, a form of wealth bound to human labor time expenditure, to the gigantic wealth-producing potential of modern science and technology. Value becomes anachronistic in terms of the system of production to which it gives rise; the realization of that potential would entail the abolition of value.” (Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory, 1993, 26)

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)

Notes towards a critique of ‘Labour Managed Firms’

We recommend to the working men to embark in co-operative production rather than in co-operative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork. (Marx, 1866)

My previous post outlined the key points from my reading of Egan and Jossa. In these notes, I reflect critically on the significance of labour-managed co-operatives, which are at the centre of their respective and related arguments. 1

Characteristics of a labour-managed co-operative firm

As previously outlined, Jossa identifies a specific form of producer co-operative as “revolutionary” and the institution of such firms at a national level as the actualisation of socialism. We need to be clear about the nature of this “revolutionary” institutional form, which, among other things, may provide a framework for a new model of co-operative university. In point 12 of my previous post, I encapsulated Jossa’s position as follows:

Labour Managed Firms “are cooperatives which fund themselves with loan capital and consequently draw a clear-cut distinction between incomes from work and incomes from capital or property.” (Jossa, 2005:14)

LMFs “effectively reverse the capital-labour relationship… the moment when cooperatives are prevented from self-financing themselves (i.e., provided they are organised as Labour Managed Firms (LMF) rather than Worker Managed Firms (WMF[/note], the description of producer cooperatives as firms run by workers as ‘their own capitalists’ will no longer apply. And as the LMF reverses the capitalistic relationship between capital and labour, it can without doubt be rated a genuine socialist enterprise in which workers cease acting as their own capitalists.” (Jossa, 2005:15)

Does this mean that the LMF abolishes the duality of concrete and abstract labour determined by capitalist wage labour and therefore the production of value based on the exchange of labour as a commodity? For Jossa, “The commodities manufactured by democratically managed cooperatives cease to be ‘in the first place an external object’ unrelated to our work … and turn into the product of free choices made by workers in association.” (2005:8)

It is worth quoting Jossa (2012a: 824-825) in more detail so that we are clear about the unique form of the Labour Managed Firm (LMF) – remember that the difference between the Worker Managed Firm and the Labour Managed Firm is, according to Jossa, “decisive.” 2

  1. LMFs are publicly owned firms whose managers are elected by the members of the firm in line with democratic procedures.
  2. Personnel can be freely hired and dismissed.
  3. Each self-managed firm is free to distribute its surplus to the members or retain it for capital accumulation.
  4. Given the ban on share issuance, LMFs raise capital resources either by contracting loans with banks or other credit institutions or by issuing bonds that can be freely placed on the market.
  5. The division of labour is still applicable, but as it is governed by the decisions made by workers in individual firms, it will be less strict than in capitalistic firms, where it is framed by capitalists.
  6. The interest that bondholders, the ‘capitalists’ of this system, cash on their loans is determined in accordance with methods consistent with orthodox theory.
  7. Even financial companies may be self-managed by workers.
  8. In Vanek’s approach, LMFs tend to maximise average member incomes; conversely, in later theoretical approaches the aim of an LMF is appropriately said to be maximising benefits of every type for the members through majority resolutions by the firm.
  9. The State is allowed to intervene in the economy with the aim of redressing market malfunctions in full keeping with the rules governing parliamentary democracies in general.
  10. Both for the sake of simplicity and because it is not easy to combine markets with planning it is assumed that public policy will not be centrally planned.

Briefly, an LMF can be termed an entity whose workers hire capital, remunerate it at a pre-fixed rate and apportion the firm’s earnings among themselves.

As a result, the firm models to be set against each other are capitalistic versus self-managed firms. In the former, capitalists or their representatives hire workers, pay them a fixed income (the wage rate) and appropriate the residual (the firm’s profit); in the democratic, cooperative or self-managed firm, workers (or their representatives) ‘hire’ capital (capitalists), remunerate it at a fixed rate of interest and appropriate the residual.

Hence, it is possible to describe democratic firms as non-capitalistic entities that reverse the typical capital–labour relation of capitalistic systems. This reversal is triggered by two main factors: (i) decisions are vested in workers, instead of in capitalists (as is the rule in capitalistic companies); and (ii) capitalists and workers switch roles, in terms that capitalists take the place of workers as fixed income earners and the variable incomes traditionally associated with capitalists are earned by the members of democratic firms.”

Jossa argues that this form of democratic, labour-managed, producer co-operative operates differently to a traditional capitalist firm by turning the relationship between capital and labour on its head.

However, what is crucial in this discussion is that on a number of occasions, Jossa emphasises that in his work “capital is defined in orthodox terms as the bulk of existing production means (not as a social relation).” (Jossa, 2012a: 824; 829; 2012b: 406) This conception of capital “as a material thing” (2012a: 829), and a “tool” (2012b: 413-4) has significant theoretical (and in my view practical) implications and we must start to unravel them with a discussion about labour. If a labour-managed co-operative is so distinctive from a worker-managed co-operative, what is “labour”?

Labour

Like his definition of capital, Jossa’s conception of labour is similarly orthodox. He recognises that when labour power is exchanged for a wage, it becomes a commodity and with that, the product from the socialisation of human creativity becomes the ‘property’ of the capitalist, the owner of the means of production. Although Jossa does not make a clear distinction between labour power and labour, we must assume that he understands labour power to be creative human potential and labour to be the application of that potential by the worker.

Jossa spends some time discussing abstract labour in the context of the labour theory of value where he is specifically concerned with the ‘problem‘, of transforming value into prices. Although he doesn’t define abstract labour in any certain terms, he eventually, and reassuringly, aligns himself with Bonefeld’s analysis. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to take very much from Bonefeld.

Jossa’s conviction is that in a labour-managed firm, labour power is not commodified and the duality of concrete and abstract labour (which Marx refers to as one of his two key contributions to political economy) no longer exists. We might expect that a post-capitalist form of labour no longer has the attributes of capitalist labour, as analysed by Marx, but in an attempt to avert “an insoluble contrast between Marxism and orthodox economic science” (2012a: 835), Jossa is willing to dismiss outright Marx’s dialectical method as well as his labour theory of value.

My reflections so far have provided evidence that—thanks to the demonstration that self-managed firms neither use labour power as a commodity nor, as a result, turn concrete labour into abstract labour—the theory of democratic firm management goes to refute the assumed link between the notion of commodity and Hegelian dialectics… Work becomes abstract when it is done in exchange for wages, and as democratic firms use no hired workers, such work as is done in these firms can never be abstract. As a result, the idea that the labour power-commodity identity is a dialectical contradiction is ruled out as a matter of course. (2012a: 836)

What is key here, is that Jossa thinks that abstract labour is determined by the wage. Without the wage, work “can never be abstract.”

Fine & Saad-Filho (2010: 20-21) provide a useful discussion of labour, which can help us understand Jossa’s views, without committing them to sharing his conclusions:

To distinguish the workers from their ability or capacity to work, Marx called the latter labour power, and its performance or application labour. 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. As a commodity, labour power has a use value, which is the creation of other use values. This property is independent of the particular society in which production takes place. However, in capitalist societies use values are produced for sale and, as such, embody abstract labour time or value. In these societies, the commodity labour power also has the specific use value that it is the source of value when exercised as labour. In this, labour power is unique.

On the other side to the class of workers are the capitalists who control the workers and the product of labour through their command of wage payments and ownership of the tools and raw materials or means of production. This is the key to the property relations specific to capitalism. For the capitalist monopoly of the means of production ties the workers to the wage relation, explained above. If the workers owned or were entitled to use the means of production independently of the wage contract, there would be no need to sell labour power rather than the product on the market and, therefore, no need to submit to capitalist control both during production and outside, in society.

Jossa’s conception of capital and labour under capitalism accords with this description of labour and labour power in terms of the labour-capital property relation. In the passages above, all authors seem to align themselves with a material view of capital as a thing (i.e. property) which capitalists, a class of people who own the means of production, control.

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)

This view of capitalism and its alternative of socialism is common and can be considered the “orthodox” view. However, I think that despite the crucial importance to socialism of labour controlling the means of production, this alone is not a decisive characteristic of a new mode of production. Whereas Jossa argues that in the Worker Managed Firm the workers “are their own capitalists” and in the Labour Managed Firm, “workers cease acting as their own capitalists”, in my view both types of firm continue to operate in the capitalist mode of production, according to the law of value. In the passages quoted above, Jossa and Fine & Saad-Filho posit capital as a material thing and capitalists as controllers of the means of production and therefore of labour. This view is not objectionable and Marx discussed capital and capitalists in these terms, too. However, Marx and other later writers elucidated their conceptualisation of capital in much richer terms that, I think, deny the “decisive” significance of whether a wage is paid or surplus collective income is shared democratically. In both cases, capital and the law of value remains in control of both the workers and the capitalists. I discuss this next.

Value

What is “value”? If Jossa represents an orthodox view of Marxism, other writers such as Clarke, Elson and Postone offer a more radical and in my mind more convincing explanation of value and its role in capitalist society.

Simon Clarke (1979: 4)

The more radical interpretation of the concept of value gave it more than a strictly economic significance. Marx’s concept of value expresses not merely the material foundation of capitalist exploitation but also, and inseparably, its social form. Within Marxist economics this implies that value is not simply a technical coefficient, it implies that the process of production, appropriation and circulation of value is a social process in which quantitative magnitudes are socially determined, in the course of struggles between and within classes . Thus the sum of value expressed in a particular commodity cannot be identified with the quantity of labour embodied in it, for the concept of value refers to the socially necessary labour time embodied, to abstract rather than to concrete labour, and this quantity can only be established when private labours are socially validated through the circulation of commodities and of capital . Thus the concept of value can only be considered in relation to the entire circuit of capital, and cannot be considered in relation to production alone.

Elson (1979: i)

Why is Marx’s theory of value important? It is important because Marx’s theory of value is the foundation of his attempt to understand capitalism in a way that is politically useful to socialists. It is not some small and dispensable part of Marx’s investigation of capital; it constitutes the basis on which that investi­gation takes place. If we decide to reject that theory, we are at the same time rejecting precisely those tools of analysis which are Marx’s distinc­tive contribution to socialist thought on the workings of capital. The debate about Marx’s value theory is, in fact, a debate about the appro­priate method of analysis, about the validity of the concepts which are specific to, and constitute the method of, historical materialism. The outcome of this debate therefore has implications far beyond the way in which we understand prices and profit in the capitalist economy. It has implications for the question of how we should carry out our em­pirical investigations today of the international restructuring of capital accumulation; of new forms of class struggle, of the capitalist state; and of the possibilities for socialism. It has implications for the fundamental question of whether what is distinctive about Marx’s method of analysis is really of any use to socialists today.

Postone (1993: 188-90)

The abstract character of the social mediation underlying capitalism is also expressed in the form of wealth dominant in that society. Marx’s “labor theory of value” is not a labor theory of wealth, that is, a theory that seeks to explain the workings of the market and prove the existence of exploitation by arguing that labor, at all times and in all places, is the only social source of wealth. Marx analyzed value as a historically specific form of wealth, which is bound to the historically unique role of labor in capitalism; as a form of wealth, it is also a form of social mediation.

Marx explicitly distinguished value from material wealth. This distinction is crucially important for his analysis. Material wealth is measured by the quantity of products produced and is a function of a number of factors such as knowledge, social organization, and natural conditions, in addition to labor. Value is constituted by human labor-time expenditure alone, according to Marx, and is the dominant form of wealth in capitalism. Whereas material wealth, when it is the dominant form of wealth, is mediated by overt social relations, value is a self-mediating form of wealth.

What Jossa seems to overlook is that ‘value’, not the wage, mediates labour in a capitalist society.

According to Marx, labour in a capitalist society has two aspects: concrete and abstract labour. Concrete, physiological labour, produces an objective form of social wealth i.e. useful things: a chair, for example. Those things are valued because of their utility (‘use value’) and for their ability to be exchanged for other commodities, usually money. In a capitalist society, most things are made in order to be sold for a surplus compared to the total cost of producing them. In other words, almost all useful things are made primarily to be commodities. Therefore, a commodity, has both a ‘use value’ (the expression of its utility), and an ‘exchange value’ (the expression of its value).

I have said that ‘value’ is realised in the act of exchange, as ‘exchange value’, such that the product of labour has a use value and an exchange value. In order to have a value that is realised in the act of exchange, there must be a measure of equivalence so that the exchange value (value) of a commodity can be exchanged for another commodity, regardless of its utility. This is how we exchange the chair commodity for an ‘equivalence’ of the money commodity. This equivalence is an abstraction – not simply a mental, reasoned form of abstraction, but a ‘real abstraction’ where the desire or imperative for producing value creates a relation of abstract equivalence between different commodities. The thing or product, which is real and has ‘use value’, is exchanged in its abstract form i.e. value, expressed as exchange value.

The use value (the useful thing) is the product of concrete, physiological labour. It ‘contains’ that labour. Its exchange value is mediated by value, a real abstraction which is measured by ‘abstract labour’. Abstract labour is the labour ‘contained’ in the product when exchanged as a commodity. As most products are produced so as to be exchanged as commodities, we can say that the products of concrete labour in general, circulate in the exchange process as containers of abstract labour. Strictly speaking, a commodity is therefore nothing but abstract labour. Viewed as a social whole – a local, national and international market of commodity exchange – each commodity is, and expresses, a fraction of the abstract labour undertaken at the level of society as a whole. It is because of this, that like the equivalence of exchange, there is an equivalence of labour: abstract labour. If the equivalence of exchange is measured by the real abstraction of ‘value’, which mediates labour, how is the abstraction of labour measured?

Abstract labour is objectified as ‘value’, which is realised in the moment of commodity exchange. Money is a commodity, the most explicit expression of the equivalence of value. Labour is a commodity, because it is undertaken for money i.e. a wage.  The value of abstract labour is socially determined through the equivalence represented by the exchange value. What determines this equivalence changes constantly, based on a number of factors, such as the rate of productivity, the availability of skilled labour and ultimately the time it necessarily takes to produce the commodity using labour broadly understood i.e. mental and manual labour, living human labour and the ‘dead’ labour embodied in machinery. All of these manifestations of labour are related by the time it takes to produce the commodity. What may take living human labour to produce in two weeks, may take the ‘dead labour’ of machinery one minute to produce. Therefore, the value of abstract labour is determined by the ‘socially necessary labour time’ that it takes to produce commodities for exchange. Marx writes: “How, then, is the magnitude of this value to be measured? By means of the quantity of the ‘value-forming substance’, the labour, which it contains. This quantity is measured by its duration, and the labour-time is itself measured on the particular scale of hours, days, etc.”

From this analysis, we can say that the real abstraction of labour time determines value in capitalist society, and that because the majority of things are produced primarily for the purpose of exchange, socially necessary labour time determines the social and private lives of all members of that society. This includes the owners of capital, who themselves are governed by the same imperative: what Postone calls the ‘determinate logic’ of this value-creating process i.e ‘capital’.

A determinate mode of production

According to this view, capitalism is driven by a determinate logic expressed by the ‘commodity form’ (i.e. use value and exchange value). Regardless of whether the worker is paid a wage for the production of the commodity, if the commodity is exchanged (e.g. for money), it has an exchange value that expresses its value and therefore the value of its substance: labour. In capitalist society, value, the substance of which is (abstract) labour, is the dominant form of social wealth. Therefore, whether the worker is paid directly for their labour by the owner of capital (i.e. a ‘wage’), or draws her means of subsistence from the surplus value realised in the exchange process of commodities produced under conditions of production which she, on the face of it, controls; at the point at which the product of her labour, the commodity, is exchanged, its value is determined by the equivalence of socially necessary (abstract) labour time. As such, in the Labour Managed Firm, despite not receiving a conventional ‘wage’, and despite owning the means of production, the worker is “their own capitalist”, and remains dominated by the abstract ‘logic’ of value.

In order to be free from the domination of the logic of value, which mediates labour and therefore all social relations, it is not sufficient to control the specific means of production i.e. a ‘firm’. The problem must be tackled at all levels of society, locally, nationally and internationally, in order to overcome the overwhelming logic of this valorisation process located in both the production and the exchange of commodities, i.e. use values primarily produced for exchange value. Value is the form of social wealth in capitalism. What is the form of wealth 3  in a post-capitalist society where the imperative of creating value has been overcome? That is the question we are left with.

It is worth reiterating that the production of value fundamentally determines our lives: it is the organising principle of social relations. We know this because the majority of people need to sell their labour (‘labour power’) in order to survive from one year to the next. In many societies, there are ways of alleviating periods of unemployment (welfare, charity, loans), but this is not a solution to the problem of self-reproduction nor a socially acceptable form of subsistence. In the absence of a formal wage, as in the Labour Managed Firm, the worker still needs to draw an income from the surplus value created by the exchange of products they produced (i.e. the ‘commodity form’ still operates). As such, value and its real abstraction of equivalence between commodities and labour time remains the determinate of social relations.

However, despite our lives being fundamentally determined by the necessity to sell our labour as a commodity, within this overwhelming constraint, there is some contingency due to the dynamic, changing, social and ultimately contradictory nature of capital, expressed as value, the substance of which is human labour. Capital needs labour. Capital must confront labour.

Attacking the groundwork

Marx recognised that producer co-operatives, more so than consumer co-operatives, “attacked the groundwork” of capitalism. My notes above do not contest this, nor are they intend to dismiss the work of Egan, Jossa and the significant benefits of labour-managed co-operative production. Certainly, workers owning and democratically controlling the means of production is an essential part of the transition to socialism and both Jossa and Egan acknowledge that Labour Managed Firms are not the whole answer to achieving a post-capitalist society. Their work is very valuable in attacking the groundwork of capitalism, but in my view while the ownership of the means of production might change, the mode of production remains the same, determined by the law of value. The struggle to achieve a federation of labour-managed co-operatives on a national and international scale is as crucial today as it was in Marx’s time. In undertaking that struggle for the means of production, we must continue to critique the mode of production and recognise that despite the class opposition, both the worker and the capitalist remain unfree, bound to a particular mode of production that requires another strategy of theoretical and practical attack.

 

 

The association of free and equal producers

We acknowledge the cooperative movement as one of the transforming forces of the present society based upon class antagonism. Its great merit is to practically show that the present pauperising, and despotic system of the subordination of labour to capital can be superseded by the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers. (Marx, 1866)

Key points from Egan and Jossa papers 1

  1. Both authors write about co-operatively run ‘Labour Managed Firms‘ (LMF) in the context of Marx, Marxism and the historical development from capitalism to socialism. Jossa appears to be unaware of Egan’s earlier work but can be read as a continuation of Egan’s main points, as outlined below.
  2. Co-operatively run Labour Managed Firms (LMF) are distinct from Worker Managed Firms (WMF) – Jossa regards this distinction as “decisive.” (2005:14) However, for the purposes of these notes we can refer to both types of co-operative firm as ‘producer co-ops‘, which are distinct from the more common ‘consumer co-ops’. “We recommend to the working men to embark in co-operative production rather than in co-operative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork.” (Marx, 1866)
  3. Producer co-ops abolish wage labour. They hire capital rather than labour. This is a fundamental characteristic. “Employment is based on payment of a membership fee or the purchase of a membership share in the enterprise, not the sale of workers’ labor power. Any net surplus is distributed to labor, not capital.” (Egan: 67)
  4. Another fundamental characteristic of producer co-ops is that they are democratically run. In capitalism, democracy operates politically, but not economically. Capitalist firms are not democratic. Producer co-ops uniquely establish democracy within the firm. “Advanced capitalist states are predicated on the exclusion of democracy from all but the political sphere of social life. In particular, the discourse of democracy in these states is not extended to work and the economy.” (Egan:67) A genuine producer co-op is “an organizational expression of democratic control of production.” (Egan:69) “…one main advantage of producer cooperatives (from the perspective of a critic of capitalism) is to realise economic democracy as an essential component of political democracy.” (Jossa, 2005:5)
  5. A principal contradiction of capitalism is that it socialises the production of private property. i.e. labour is purchased and brought together by the owners of capital to produce more privately owned capital. In the capitalist firm, capital controls and co-ordinates labour through the wage.  Marx referred to the ‘double nature’ of management in capitalist firms, where due to the imperative to grow, capital ownership and management become separated and management is socialised (Egan: 70-71). The owner of capital supplies capital while the manager of the firm is the administrator of capital. The capitalist no longer directly supervises the production of capital. Joint-stock companies resolve this contradiction for the capitalist, in a way that remains negative for labour.
  6. Producer co-ops resolve this contradiction positively for labour. “The capitalist stock companies, as much as the co-operative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.” (Marx, 1894) The management of a producer co-op is established as a function of labour instead of capital. As Marx recognised: “In a co-operative factory the antagonistic nature of the labour of supervision disappears, because the manager is paid by the labourers instead of representing capital counterposed to them.” (Marx, 1894, quoted in Egan: 71) “Instead of management hiring labor, labor now hires management.” (Egan, ibid)
  7. Historically, Marxists have largely dismissed the potential of co-operatively run firms as ‘market socialism’ which inevitably degenerate into capitalist firms. However, there is clear evidence that Marx understood the distinct form of producer co-ops positively and as a historical development of capitalism leading to socialism (both Jossa and Egan point to similar sources in Marx’s writing to evidence this). “Marx sees cooperatives as a “transforming force” to the extent that they reflect the structural possibilities for democratic social production found within capitalism.” (Egan:72)
  8. Marx recognised that emerging producer co-operatives continue to operate within capitalism and reproduce the commodification of use-values through the sale of things in the market. In this way, the sustained success of producer co-operatives approximates that of the capitalist firm. Egan states that “this is where most contemporary Marxist commentary on labor-managed firms in advanced capitalism stops… A form of market determinism permeates this commentary; the power of the market to force cooperatives to degenerate into capitalist firms (if they survive at all) is seen as absolute.” (Egan: 73) However, capitalist markets are a historically specific form of social relations and therefore a dialectical analysis reveals the possibility of an alternative. “Worker cooperatives are politically and theoretically problematic, but so are all struggles which arise out of and challenge (either intentionally or unintentionally) the logic of capitalism… A Marxist analysis of worker cooperatives must critically examine the limitations of such an organizational form within capitalism, but it must do so from a foundation which also recognizes the positive qualitative developments which such organizations reflect.” (Egan: 76) “The potential for degeneration [into a capitalist firm] must be seen to lie not within the cooperative form of organization itself, but in the contradiction between it and its capitalist environment. Degeneration is not, however, determined by this contradiction.” (Egan: 82)
  9. For Marx, the formation of co-operatives as a historical (dialectical) outcome of capitalism must be the outcome of class struggle, rather than instituted by the state or paternalistic capitalists. For Marx, Egan and Jossa, a further fundamental characteristic of producer co-ops is “the development of a cooperative, solidaristic orientation between cooperatives themselves.” (Egan: 74) Co-operatives must assist each other rather than compete with each other in a “unity of action, and identity of interest.” (Egan, quoting Jones: 74)
  10. Drawing from Marx, Egan outlines “three institutional mechanisms designed to prevent co-operative degeneration.” First, hired labour must be prohibited. Second, co-operatives should belong to a national organisation. Third, a proportion of the surplus of co-operatives should be devoted to a fund for the creation of new co-operatives. (Egan: 75)
  11. Worker Managed Firms, “which are widespread in the Western world, self-finance themselves and consequently do not strictly separate labour incomes from capital incomes; their members earn mixed incomes (from capital and work), in place of pure incomes from work.” (Jossa, 2005:14) In such firms, workers are “their own capitalists”, a progressive development of capitalism. Marx wrote: “The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour. They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage.” (Marx, 1894)
  12. Labour Managed Firms “are cooperatives which fund themselves with loan capital and consequently draw a clear-cut distinction between incomes from work and incomes from capital or property.” (Jossa, 2005:14) LMFs “effectively reverse the capital-labour relationship… the moment when cooperatives are prevented from self-financing themselves (i.e., provided they are organised as LMFs rather than WMFs), the description of producer cooperatives as firms run by workers as ‘their own capitalists’ will no longer apply. And as the LMF reverses the capitalistic relationship between capital and labour, it can without doubt be rated a genuine socialist enterprise in which workers cease acting as their own capitalists.” (Jossa, 2005:15) Does this mean that the LMF abolishes the duality of concrete and abstract labour determined by capitalist wage labour and therefore the production of value based on the exchange of labour as a commodity? For Jossa (2005:8), “The commodities manufactured by democratically managed cooperatives cease to be ‘in the first place an external object’ unrelated to our work … and turn into the product of free choices made by workers in association.”
  13. For Jossa, the successful transition to socialism can and must be a gradual, non-violent process (Jossa, 2009). Producer co-operatives operating within a market economy “must be looked upon as a transitional economic system.” (2005:12) “This [co-operative] system can be established piece by piece, by enacting parliamentary legislation designed to further self-management in manners that will encourage the creation of democratic firms until these end up by outnumbering capitalistic firms. (Jossa, 2012a:834-5) Producer co-operatives mark a change in the mode of production and in this sense are revolutionary.  Socialism based upon national and international associations of producer co-operatives is the most credible alternative to the failures of state socialism and its centralised planning. (Jossa 2012a: 823)
  14. According to Jossa, a defining characteristic of capitalism is not that commodities (use values) are produced primarily for sale (exchange value), but that labour power is purchased as a commodity for the production of profit (surplus value).  In a LMF, labour power is not purchased and consequently a number of features of capitalism are called into question (e.g. alienation, the ownership of the means of production, the mode of production, the division of labour, the necessity of work). (Jossa, 2012a: 836)

The university is itself a means of production

If we examine the whole [labour] process from the point of view of its result, the product, it is plain that both the instruments and the subject of labour, are means of production, and that the labour itself is productive labour. (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, Ch. 7)

Following on from my earlier notes, I wanted to be clearer about what I understand by the ‘means of production’.

Marx clearly defines the ‘means of production’ as “the instruments and the subjects of labour”, which, when combined with human labour i.e. work, becomes a productive force.

The elementary factors of the labour-process are 1, the personal activity of man, i.e., work itself, 2, the subject of that work [i.e. raw materials or the product of a previous labour process – in our case ‘prior knowledge’], and 3, its instruments [i.e. technology, buildings, roads, etc.]. (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, Ch. 7)

Therefore, when we speak of the university itself as a ‘means of production’, we refer to the configuration of its ‘instruments’ (e.g. technology, buildings, etc.), and the ‘subject of labour’ (e.g. prior knowledge). In other words, the ‘means of production’ refers to the university’s structural, technological and bureaucratic configuration as a form of capital for the production of knowledge. The university incorporates prior knowledge into its production process and the knowledge it produces is offered as the ‘subject of labour’ elsewhere, resulting in capital accumulation (i.e. growth).

The academic and student are brought together by this configuration in order to produce new knowledge through their labour. However, in a content-driven form of higher education, the student’s role shifts towards that of a consumer of knowledge which is produced by academics and, increasingly, through a global, social process that is distributed via mass forms of communication e.g. the Internet. In this consumer role, the student is profoundly dis-empowered, having become integral to the exchange process (the moment at which surplus value/profit is realised), rather than the production process (the moment at which value is created).

If the purpose of higher education is the production of knowledge, its product is knowledge and so we must examine the whole labour process from this standpoint, beginning not from the exchange process, nor from the point of view of its instruments (i.e. technology) but from the labour process.

That labourer alone is productive, who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, and thus works for the self-expansion of capital. If we may take an example from outside the sphere of production of material objects, a schoolteacher is a productive labourer, when, in addition to belabouring the heads of their scholars, they work like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out their capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory, does not alter the relation. Hence the notion of a productive labourer implies not merely a relation between work and useful effect, between labourer and product of labour, but also a specific, social relation of production, a relation that has sprung up historically and stamps the labourer as the direct means of creating surplus-value. To be a productive labourer is, therefore, not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.(Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Chapter 16)

Finally, a word of caution on the use of the term ‘immaterial labour‘ to refer to the labour of academics and students.

Marx never used the term ‘immaterial labour’. Obviously this should not deter us from using the term if it is a useful development of Marx’s critique of political economy, but in this case, it is not. Marx was aware of the term ‘immaterial labour’, but critical of it as a reified, liberal concept that contributes to class division. Those who use the term ‘immaterial labour’ to refer to the work of academia usually do so in a polemical, political way. In this sense it is a positive, fetish category, rather than the basis of a negative, critical standpoint. It offers nothing to the clarity of meaning that Marx provides with his own critique of labour and can be easily confused with the essential category of ‘abstract labour’. If labour can indeed be distinguished as ‘immaterial’, then following Marx, we might assume there are ‘immaterial commodities’, too, and the historical-materialist method is abandoned. Marx’s critique of the commodity form, value and labour are comprehensive and inclusive of what we might think of as material and immaterial and to start with ‘immaterial labour’ is to start from a position which is against Marx.

Of course, the ideas around ‘immaterial labour’ raised by Lazzaranto, Negri and others are interesting, but ultimately add nothing to a critical theory of commodity production as the basis of capitalist social relations.  For a concise and critical examination of the expression ‘immaterial labour’, see Haug (2009). For an expansive study of intellectual (not ‘immaterial’) and manual labour, see Sohn-Rethel (1978).

For our purposes in understanding the university itself as a means of production, the labour of students and academics is encapsulated by Marx when he states:

On the one hand all labour is, speaking physiologically, an expenditure of human labour-power, and in its character of identical abstract human labour, it creates and forms the value of commodities. On the other hand, all labour is the expenditure of human labour-power in a special form and with a definite aim, and in this, its character of concrete useful labour, it produces use-values. (Capital Vol. 1, Chapter 1)

To conceive all labour in its general (cf. ‘abstractnot immaterial) form is to begin to understand the role of labour in capitalist society.