This chapter discusses the peculiar nature of the ‘commodity’. I start by chopping the word down to its etymological roots and then reanimate it as the ‘commodity form’. In order to explain a single word, I have to introduce others: labor-power, abstract labor, socially necessary labor time and value. I then discuss the commodity of education, students as consumers and as producers. Finally, I conclude that the university (or college, or school) is a fetish that conceals the pervasive social power of the commodity-form.Winn, Joss (2021). Commodity. In: Themelis, Spyros (Ed.), Critical Reflections on the Language of Neoliberalism in Education: Dangerous Words and Discourses of Possibility. London: Routledge.
Originally published in Postdigital Science and Education.
~ As he writes, the fourth wall is crumbling. He is sitting in his office towards the end of a winter’s day. Outside the window he hears people making promises on the pavement, cars passing like waves breaking in the distance. He sees his bookshelves reflected in the darkness of the glass. He has more books than he has years left to read.
Recent literature on English higher education has documented a number of incremental policy changes over the last four decades that have led towards the marketisation of the sector. The Browne Review (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 2010), HE White Paper (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 2016) and Higher Education and Research Act (Higher Education and Research Act 2017 have explicitly worked towards creating a system of higher education that has all the key features of marketisation.
The effects of marketisation in English higher education and elsewhere have prompted researchers to examine the changing nature of the profession, critically reflecting on the impact of metrics, performativity, debt and bureaucracy on academic work. Recently, the emphasis has been on ‘academic identity’, responding to a decline in the conditions of academic labour across the world and the instrumentalised role of universities in national economies. Despite a recent increase in union membership and an emphasis on ‘wellbeing’, contractual conditions in HE are worsening, pensions are being undermined and more academics and students are becoming sick and tired. In The Alienated Academic, Richard Hall surveys much of this literature and the general sense of estrangement and hopelessness within the higher education sector.Where Hall’s book differs from much of the literature on the marketisation of higher education and threats to professional identity, is his thoroughgoing, relentless attempt to explain what is happening at a categorical level that cuts through (i.e. intersects) the differences in professional experience in order to find what is common among us.
~ He is an academic. He sits, he reads, he experiments, he designs, he builds, he thinks, he writes, he stands, he teaches, he listens. He is an academic. He creates teaching resources, he runs projects, he writes grant applications, he attends conferences, he publishes articles and books. He attend meetings, he creates modules. He is an academic. He tutors, he mentors, he supports, he liaises, he networks, he leads, he contributes, he develops, he consults, he plans, he organises, he strategises, he collaborates, he co-ordinates, he supervises, he manages, he negotiates, he champions, he influences, he evaluates, he appraises, he examines, he marks, he accredits. He is a teacher, a researcher, a scholar, an entrepreneur. He is an academic. This is his work.
The alienation that Hall identifies at work goes beyond estrangement and hopelessness and is rooted, he argues, in the critical category of labour. In fact, to see the problem as marketisation, metrics or managerialism is to mistake the manifestation for the cause of our problems. Such an approach tends towards an unreflexive resistance to our own objective conditions and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. That helplessness breeds hopelessness, a recurring theme throughout Hall’s book. What is required (and this is key to the whole book) is a categorical critique of academic labour; one which perceives labour in the university through the basic critical categories of wage labour.As Hall shows, the basis for a categorical critique of labour was established by Marx in his exposition of the commodity-form. Marx regarded the historically specific relationship between the form of labour and the form of commodities as his key intellectual contribution and ‘the pivot on which a clear comprehension of political economy turns’ (Marx 1867/1996: 51). It is this pivotal theoretical insight that underpins the basis of Hall’s understanding of ‘labour’ and distinguishes his approach from a traditionally naturalised view of ‘labour’ that understands labour as the basis for an emancipatory critique of capitalism, rather than the historically specific object of critique. The specificity of capitalist labour is the form it takes as wage labour, a historically unique organisation of human activity mediated by value. Its emancipated opposite is, according to Marx and others since, a form of productive activity that is ‘directly social’.
~ From each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs.
The Alienated Academic is structured in three parts over nine densely written and heavily referenced chapters. It covers a lot of ground in 270 pages, drawing widely from contemporary Marxist theory as well as an extensive engagement with Marx’s original work. It provides a useful survey of the concept of alienation and argues for the continuing and contemporary relevance of Marxist theory and its basic categories of labour, value, the commodity, subsumption and so on. What is likely to make this sometimes difficult book both intriguing and more broadly appealing is that Hall extends his contemporary Marxism with the literature of feminism, (de)colonialism, identity politics and intersectionality. It is a productive synthesis that is set in the context of contemporary changes in English higher education, while recognising that the alienating features of English university life can be found across the world.For these reasons, this is a unique and ground-breaking monograph in the field of critical university studies.
~ When he writes, he forgets to stand. He forgets to drink. At night, his body aches.
Below is an extended pre-print of a book review for Power and Education journal. The first half talks directly about the book; the remainder tries to offer a critical response.
Rudd, Tim and Goodson, Ivor F. (Eds.) (2017) Negotiating Neoliberalism. Developing Alternative Educational Visions. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
This book, comprised of 13 peer-reviewed chapters, presents a coherent understanding of neoliberalism as an ideological project, the ways in which it is made manifest in all areas of formal education, and the need to develop conceptual and practical alternatives that serve humanity rather than the economy. The focus of the book is equally weighted between discussions of compulsory and higher education and similarly balanced between theoretical and empirical scholarship and research. In addition to the thematic coherence of the chapters, most of the authors engage with Goodson’s framework of ‘The five R’s of educational research’ (2015): Remembering, regression, reconceptualization, refraction, and renewal. In their introduction to the book, editors, Rudd and Goodson, extend this to ‘six R’s’ with the addition of resistance.
This framework serves the book’s authors well. For example, Mike Hayler argues that formative assessment can be combined with the principles of critical pedagogy to resist data-driven target-setting and similarly, Peter Humphreys proposes a more personalised education that is “invitational” and wholly democratic. Ingunn Elisabeth Stray and Helen Eikeland Voreland employ refraction to study UNESCO’s Education For All project through the cases of Norway and Nepal and conclude that the project is in danger of becoming “an exercise of political violence” that needs to become more sensitive to national and cultural contexts.
Two chapters in the book combine remembering with renewal through the theme of co-operative education. Following a brief history of co-operative education in the context of neoliberalism, Tom Woodin’s chapter discusses an in-school co-operative of more than 80 students who provide peer-support to other students in a variety of subjects. The experience of setting up and running the co-operative has introduced a sense of solidarity and collective purpose among its members. This small example of constituting social relationships differently within a neoliberal context is in itself an education in the possibility of alternatives that can be expanded both within and outside the education system. Co-operatives, argues Woodin, offer a form of “structural innovation” that is capable of proliferating and maintaining a sense of social struggle. John Schostak’s chapter extends this argument by acknowledging the recent movement of co-operative schools in the UK but recognising that without radical changes at the level of the curriculum, there is the “ever present danger of simply reproducing” the status quo. Schostak persuasively argues that the practice of co-operation is itself a form of collective education out of which a curriculum of learning emerges, based on the practice of democracy. The institutional forms that arise from the practice of democracy, solidarity and equality are themselves the subject of study as much as they are the object of collective management.
Richard Hall focuses on academic labour within UK higher education, discussing the influence of ‘human capital theory’ on the way in which the labour of academics is being valorised. What makes the chapter interesting is the way in which he provides a close reading of Marx through which he exposes human capital theory as a theory of productivity that is made manifest in the intensification of labour time. This now operates in policy and in practice inside higher education and elsewhere. Hall’s response is to work against this reconceptualization of academic labour by advocating solidarity inside and outside universities so that academic labour, including that of students, is recognised as having the same fundamental characteristics as other forms of labour and is therefore subject to the same crises of capitalism that are the focus of other social movements. Hall is not arguing for the militant defence of academic labour, but to see it for what it is: wage labour subject to the alienation of the capitalist valorisation process, and as such should be abolished. Resistance to the processes of work intensification are all the while necessary, but the discovery of new forms of social solidarity and large scale transformation (rather than reformation) of political economy are the end goals.
A chapter which shares a key critical category with Richard Hall’s is that of Yvonne Downs, who focuses on the difficult concept of ‘value’. She argues that “little is known about the value of higher education at all” (59) and offers critiques of two prevalent discourses: financialization and ‘privileged intrinsicality’. Financialization reduces everything to a single logic of financial value either in terms of individual income or public savings. Privileged intrinsicality is a nostalgic response to financialization that views education as being valuable in and of itself. Like financialization, it reduces the value of higher education to a single logic of value, only this time, non-financial and ultimately grounded in a particular (liberal) morality. To counter each of these discourses, Downs proposes a form of ‘refraction’ that understands how individual forms of value are always embedded in dominant cultures of valuation. This conception of value as an ongoing process of (e)valuation is referred to as ‘lay normativity’, defined as “that which already and actually matters to people.” (67) This is a reflexive and pragmatic conception of value that is irreducible to a single hegemonic logic and asserts this process of individual and class-based (e)valuation as an expression of agency.
Returning to Rudd and Goodson’s six-point framework for research, they illustrate in their concluding chapter that it takes into account supra, macro, meso and micro levels of analysis, positioning the most abstract level of analysis at the top of the ‘axes of refraction’ (i.e. supra). However, in my view, this methodological separation of the abstract (ideology) from the concrete (individuals) has real, practical consequences in terms of the sixth ‘R’ of resistance. What, exactly, are we resisting? Is it, for example, the supra structures of neoliberalism or the micro agency of Chief Executives? Stephen O’Brien’s chapter on Resisting Neoliberal Education further illustrates this dilemma, where he writes about resisting “these neoliberal times”, resisting a loss of freedom to “an all-consuming capitalism”, and resisting the neoliberal “paradigm”. All of the chapters in the book show a concern with the concrete, qualitative specificity of neoliberalism as well as recognising its abstract nature, which suggests we need a methodology that reveals their inherent unity. One complementary approach is to employ Marx’s dialectical epistemology, which is the basis for his method of “rising from the abstract to the concrete”. For Marx, “the concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many [abstract] determinations, hence unity of the diverse.” (Marx, 1993, 101)
This approach is compatible with Rudd and Goodson’s framework but suggests that the technologies of neoliberalism are the ‘concentration’ of the fundamental (i.e. determinate) categories of capitalism. As a historically specific expression of capitalism (Clarke, 2004), a critique of neoliberalism requires us to understand and work with the analytical categories of critical political economy and in doing so recognise that capitalist society is structured by a quasi-autonomous developmental logic (Postone, 1993) whereby socially constructed abstractions have real, determining, concrete existence and power over people. This logic is laid out in the first chapter of Capital (1976) in Marx’s exposition of the value-form of commodities. It is a form of social domination that extends across all levels of analysis, from supra to micro, and, critically, is given substance and mediated by “the two-fold character of labour according to whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange-value” (Marx, 1987, 402). It is his unique discovery of the dual character of labour in capitalism (and therefore the possibility of its abolition) that fully establishes Marx’s mature work as a theory of emancipation.
Discussions of ‘neoliberal education’ tend to focus on concrete expressions of capitalism (e.g. policy, performativity or professionalism) while rarely engaging with its fundamental categories (e.g. labour, value, capital), let alone being grounded in them (Hall and Downs’ chapters are notable exceptions). As Moishe Postone has argued (1993), one of the problems with this approach is that anti-capitalist efforts to resist the concrete features of neoliberalism tend to be both dualistic and one-sided; they identify capital with its manifest expressions (its concrete appearance rather than essence) and in the act of resistance (e.g. violence, refusal) further hypostasize the concrete while overlooking the fundamentally dialectical nature of capitalism’s social forms and therefore allowing its abstract power to persist unchallenged (Postone, 1980). Thus, efforts to assert an identity and ethic of professionalism, the dignity of useful labour, or indeed, create oppositional alternatives, can themselves be seen as a form of reification which tends to lead to “an expression of a deep and fundamental helplessness, conceptually as well as politically.” (Postone, 2006).
This suggests that the real power of capitalism/neoliberalism is not in the structures of its institutions or the agency of certain individuals to discipline others or undertake acts of resistance, but rather in the impersonal, intangible, quasi-objective form of domination that is expressed in the form of value, the substance of which is labour. What distinguishes this approach from debates that dissolve into metaphysics and morality is that Marx’s category of value refers to a historically specific (i.e. contingent) form of social wealth. As today’s dominant form of social wealth, the form of value as elucidated by Marx (1978) offers the ability to render any aspect of the social and natural world as commensurate with another to devastating effect. The urgent project for education is therefore to support the creation of a new form of social wealth, one that is not based on the commensurability of everything, nor the values of a dominant class, but on the basis of mutuality and love: ‘From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.’
Clarke, Simon (2004) The Neoliberal Theory of Society. In Saad-Filho, Alfredo and Johnston, Deborah (Eds.) Neoliberalism. A Critical Reader. Pluto Press.
Goodson, Ivor F. (2015) The five Rs of educational research, Power and Education 7 (1) 34 – 38
Marx, Karl (1993) Grundrisse, Penguin Classics.
Marx, Karl (1978) The Value-Form, Capital and Class, 4: 130-150.
Marx, Karl (1976) Capital, Penguin Classics.
Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1987) 1864-68, Letters, Marx and Engels Collected Works Volume 42. Lawrence and Wishart Ltd.
Postone, Moishe (2006) History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism, Public Culture, 18 (1) 93-110.
Postone, Moishe (1993) Time, Labour and Social Domination, Cambridge.
Postone, Moishe (1980) Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to “Holocaust”, New German Critique, 19 (1) 97-115.
Karen Gregory and I have edited a special issue of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, which focuses on the contribution that Marx and Engels’ work can make to the critical study of academic labour. This is also something I explored in my earlier article for Workplace, ‘Writing about academic labor‘. In addition to editing the issue, Karen and I contributed an extended, introductory article and Karen took the opportunity to interview Stanley Aronowitz, who was also interviewed in 1998 for the first issue of Workplace.
The Call for Papers was first announced here in December 2014 and I’d like to thank the authors for their contributions (and patience), as well as Karen, who has been a pleasure to work with, and Stephen Petrina, the general editor of Workplace, for his encouragement and support. Here’s the Table of Contents:
|Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor|
|Karen Lynn Gregory, Joss Winn|
|Towards an Orthodox Marxian Reading of Subsumption(s) of Academic Labour under Capital|
|Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety|
|Richard Hall, Kate Bowles|
|Taxi Professors: Academic Labour in Chile, a Critical-Practical Response to the Politics of Worker Identity|
|Elisabeth Simbürger, Mike Neary|
|Marxism and Open Access in the Humanities: Turning Academic Labor against Itself|
|Labour in the Academic Borderlands: Unveiling the Tyranny of Neoliberal Policies|
|Antonia Darder, Tom G. Griffiths|
|Jobless Higher Ed: Revisited, An Interview with Stanley Aronowitz|
|Stanley Aronowitz, Karen Lynn Gregory|
Mike Neary and I have a short article published in the ‘Points for Debate’ section of the Higher Education Research and Development journal. We were invited to write it following our contributions at the Academic Identities conference in Durham, 2014. It looks like the article is Open Access, but if that changes, 50 copies are available for download from the publisher’s website and here’s the pre-print.
POINTS FOR DEBATE
Against academic identity
‘Academic identity’ is a key issue for debates about the professionalisation of university teaching and research, as well as the meaning and purpose of higher education. However, the concept of ‘academic identity’ is not adequate to the critical task for which it is utilised as it fails to deal with the real nature of work in capitalist society. It is important to move on from the mystifying and reified politics of identity and seek to understand academic life so that its alienated forms can be transformed. This can be done by grasping the essential aspects of capitalist work in both its abstract and concrete forms, as well as the historical and social processes out of which academic labour has emerged.
The interest among the academic community in academic identity reflects a broader concern with the nature of academic work. This has been a preoccupation of researchers of higher education who have examined the changing nature of the profession (Tight 2000; Fitzgerald, White & Gunter, 2012), the impact of policy and bureaucracy on academic work (Slaughter & Leslie, 1999), and the politics of the workplace (Martin, 1998). Recently, the emphasis has been on identity and what it subjectively means to be an academic (Barcan, 2013) responding to a decline in the conditions of academic labour across the world and the increasingly instrumentalised role of higher education in national economies (Brown & Carasso, 2013). Yet, despite repeated calls for increased unionisation (Krause et. al., 2008), individual autonomy is decreasing (Hall, 2013), contractual conditions are worsening (UCU, 2013), individual mental health issues are rising (Kinman & Wray, 2013) and academic work is being intensified (Gill, 2009).
This research into academic work and identity has helped illuminate the crisis at the heart of academic life, yet it does not get beyond a sense of powerlessness and anxiety. For example, Ball (2003) offers a perceptive and emotive account of life in the neoliberal university yet stops short at offering an adequate theory of academic work and identity. Ultimately, Ball’s account lacks explanatory and emancipatory power while the forces that shape academic life remain a mystery (Winn, 2014). This limitation is not unique to sociologists of education. In general, the last few decades of critical thinking in the social sciences have privileged questions of identity (race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender) to the neglect of what we regard as more fundamental categories of critique, including that of labour and, as such, represent “an expression of a deep and fundamental helplessness, conceptually as well as politically” (Postone, 2006, p. 102).
An adequate, explanatory theory of academic life in the neoliberal university must begin from Marx’s negative critique of labour in capitalist societies. The focus on the principle of negativity is key to this analysis (Noys, 2010), operating against the notion of difference and the affirmation of a multiplicity of identities. The positive attitude towards the concept of the Other which emerges from the celebration of difference is a hallmark of contemporary critical social theory, e.g., feminism, black studies, ethnicity, Queer and various other types of post-structural subjectivities. The key issue should be not a celebration of how different we are but, rather, what forces us to be different: classified within a pre-determined paradigm of capitalist domination. Holloway, Matamoros & Tischler (2009) argue that identity thinking leads to the politics of reconciliation and adaptation (which falls to escape its liberal formulations), while negativity leads to the politics of refusal to be dominated, or “the movement of endless revolt” (2009, p. 7) or class struggle. Not identity, but non-identity.
The basis for a negative critique of identity was established by Marx in his exposition of the commodity-form. Labour in capitalism is defined by having a simultaneously concrete and homogenous, abstract social form, which is expressed as its product, the commodity, which has a corresponding concrete use-value and abstract exchange-value. Marx regarded this historically specific relationship between the form of labour and the form of commodities as “the pivot on which a clear comprehension of political economy turns.” (Marx, 1996, p. 51). Starting from this discovery, which is fundamental to an understanding of capitalism in general, academic labour has both a concrete and abstract character reflected in the concept of ‘value’ that mediates the exchange of commodities and the social division of capitalist work.
This theoretical approach does not seek to provide a critique of academic life from the standpoint of labour but, rather, through a negative critique of labour (Postone, 1993). Taking this approach, both academic identity and academic labour are treated as reified concepts, or “real abstractions” (Sohn-Rethel, 1978, p. 20) to be overcome, transcended and indeed ‘abolished’ (aufhebung), theoretically and practically.
There is a need to theorise, imagine and develop new forms of social institutions for higher education based not on the production and mediation of value (the substance of which is homogenous, abstract labour) but on a new form of social wealth defined by an abundance or excess of knowledge, rather than its imposed scarcity in the form of value (Neary & Hagyard, 2010).
To assist this practical, transitional work, inspiration can be drawn from the worldwide tradition of worker co-operatives – an historic organisational form that has always sought to overcome the imposition of wage labour and establish a form of social property or a ‘commons’ that is democratically governed. We have been working with other academics, students, and members of our local community on such a project for co-operative higher education since 2010 (http://socialsciencecentre.org.uk). We are continually encouraged by the responses we receive from colleagues who are struggling to perceive academic life beyond the neoliberal university. As we conceive it, a ‘co-operative university’ is not simply a form of resistance against what the university has become but, rather, it is a dialectical response which recognises that the conditions for a new social form of higher education are already being produced both inside and outside the university by the only productive and creative intellectual force that exists in society, described by Marx as the “general intellect” or the “social brain” (Marx, 1993, p. 694). In capitalist society, the power of this social intellect is captured as science and technology and turned against its immediate producers (Winn, 2013); in communist society, this process would be re-constituted as a form of “mass intellectuality” and be appropriated for the benefit of the social and the natural world.
Ball, S. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215–228.
Barcan, R (2013). Academic life and labour in the new university: Hope and other choices. England & USA: Ashgate Publishing.
Brown, R. & Carasso, H. (2013). Everything for sale? The marketisation of UK higher education. London: Routledge.
Fitzgerald, T., White, J. & Gunter, H. (2012). Hard labour? Academic work and the changing landscape of higher education. Bingley: Emerald Books.
Gill, R. (2009). Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia. In R. Flood & R. Gill, R. (Eds.), Secrecy and silence in the research process: Feminist reflections (pp. 228-244), London: Routledge.
Hall, R. (2013). Educational technology and the enclosure of academic labour inside public higher education. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 11(3), 52–82.
Holloway, J., Matamoros, F. & Tischler, S. (Eds.) (2009). Negativity and revolution: Adorno and political activism. London: Pluto Press.
Kinman, G. & Wray, S. (2013). Higher stress: A survey of stress and well-being among staff in higher education. University and College Union (UCU). Retrieved 1st December 2014 from http://www.ucu.org.uk/media/pdf/4/5/HE_stress_report_July_2013.pdf
Krause, M., Nolan, M., Palm, M. & Ross, A. (2008). The university against itself: The NYU strike and the future of the academic workplace. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Martin, R. (1998). Chalk lines: The politics of work in the managed university. Durham: Duke University Press.
Marx, K. (1996). Capital, Volume 1, Marx and Engels’ collected works, Vol. 35. London: Lawrence and Wishart Ltd.
Neary, M. & Hagyard, A. (2010). Pedagogy of excess: An alternative political economy of student life. In M. Molesworth, R. Scullion & and E. Nixon (Eds.), The marketisation of higher education and the student as consumer. London: Routledge.
Noys, B. (2010). The persistence of the negative: A critique of contemporary continental theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Postone, M. (1993). Time, labour and social domination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Postone, M. (2006). History and helplessness: Mass mobilization and contemporary forms of anticapitalism. Public Culture, 18(1), 93–110.
Slaughter, S. & Leslie, L. (1999). Academic capitalism: Politics, policies and the entrepreneurial university. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Sohn-Rethel, A. (1978). Intellectual and manual labour. New Jersey: Humanities Press.
Tight, M. (2000). Academic work and life: What it is to be an academic, and how this is changing. London: Elsevier.
University and College Union (UCU) (2013). Over half of universities and colleges use lecturers on zero hours contracts. News 5th September. Retrieved on 1st December 2014 from http://www.ucu.org.uk/6749
Winn, J. (2013). Hacking in the university: Contesting the valorisation of academic labour. Triple C: Communication, capitalism and critique, 11(2), 486–503.
Winn, J. (2014). Writing about academic labor. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, 25, 1–15.
I begin this article by discussing the recent work of academics and activists to identify the advan- tages and issues relating to co-operative forms of higher education, and then focus on the ‘worker co-operative’ organisational form and its applicability and suitability to the governance of and practices within higher educational institutions. Finally, I align the values and principles of worker co-ops with the critical pedagogic framework of ‘Student as Producer’. Throughout I employ the work of Karl Marx to theorise the role of labour and property in a ‘co-operative university’, drawing particularly on later Marxist writers who argue that Marx’s labour theory of value should be understood as a critique of labour under capitalism, rather than one developed from the standpoint of labour.
A pre-print version of this article is available from the University of Lincoln research repository.
An earlier and expanded version of this paper given at the ‘Governing Academic Life’ conference is also available from the University of Lincoln research repository.
This essay calls for a return to the labour theory of Marx, or rather to Marx’s negative critique of labour and its “pivotal” role in comprehending the political economy of higher education. It argues that a critique of capitalism and its apparent complexity must be undertaken through an immanent critique of labour, rather than from the standpoint of labour as has been the case in both Marxist and non-Marxist traditions of labour studies. Through a review of exemplar articles on ‘academic labour’, the essay draws attention to the fundamental importance of employing Marx’s method of abstraction so as to understand the concrete social world of capital. Finally, it proposes that the future of academic labour is to be found in its negation and overcoming rather than in efforts to resist the ‘logic’ of valorisation.
Download the full article from Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labour.
This article has been translated into Polish and published in a special edition of PRAKTYKA TEORETYCZNA 4(18)/2015. This special issue focuses on ‘Labour and Production in Higher Education’ with special attention given to Student as Producer. It includes work by Sarah Amsler, Richard Hall, Krystian Szadkowski and Mike Neary.
As I noted recently, Marx explicated the ‘value-form’ in four published texts. Although the texts can be demanding of the reader at times, the resulting theory is relatively straightforward. When discussing Marx’s work, some writers try to illustrate the progression of his argument, which I think is a good idea. Here are three illustrations I’ve come across. Let me know of any more.
This illustration of the ‘simple value-form’ is from Milios et al (2002: 25). I really like it.
This next illustration is quite different because it’s trying to show the unfolding of Marx’s argument (which includes the above ‘simple value-form’) in the first chapter of Capital. It’s from Harvey (2010: 26).
Harvey’s illustration is very high-level. My preference is for that of Cleaver (2000: 93). Again, it’s an illustration of the unfolding of chapter one of Capital, but provides just the right balance of abstract overview and essential detail so as to remain useful. It offers both the detail of Milios and the overview of Harvey.
Marx’s theory of the “value-form of the commodity” was developed over four different published texts. I have linked to them below in chronological order. It’s very interesting to read them in succession in terms of how Marx tried to make it easier for the reader. There’s something to be gained from using each text and as such a later version does not necessarily supersede the former. My preference is to usually use the third version (the appendix to the first German edition of Capital) because it is structured in a very pedagogical manner, unlike the first version which is especially dense reading.
Always keep in mind Marx’s own reflections on this body of work, too:
“Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences. To understand the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will, therefore, present the greatest difficulty. That which concerns more especially the analysis of the substance of value and the magnitude of value, I have, as much as it was possible, popularised. The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money-form, is very elementary and simple. Nevertheless, the human mind has for more than 2,000 years sought in vain to get to the bottom of it all, whilst on the other hand, to the successful analysis of much more composite and complex forms, there has been at least an approximation. Why? Because the body, as an organic whole, is more easy of study than are the cells of that body. In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both. But in bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour — or value-form of the commodity — is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy.”
It would seem that the anatomy of capitalism is laid out in these four texts…
In this paper we analyse ‘academic labour’ using categories developed by Marx in his critique of political economy. In doing so, we return to Marx to help understand the work of academics as productive living labour subsumed by the capitalist mode of production. In elaborating our own position, we are critical of two common approaches to the study of academic labour, especially as they emerge from inside analyses of ‘virtual labour’ or ‘digital work’ (Fuchs and Sevignani, 2013; Newfield, 2010; Roggero, 2011).
First, we are critical of efforts to define the nature of our work as ‘immaterial labour’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000; Peters and Bulut, 2011; Scholtz, 2013) and argue that this category is an unhelpful and unnecessary diversion from the analytical power of Marx’s social theory and method. The discourse around ‘immaterial labour’ raised by the Autonomist or Operaismo tradition is thought-provoking, but ultimately adds little to a critical theory of commodity production as the basis of capitalist social relations (Postone, 1993; Sohn-Rethel, 1978). In fact they tend to overstate network-centrism and its concomitant disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape our objective social reality (Robinson, 2004).
Second, we are cautious of an approach which focuses on the digital content of academic labour (Noble, 2002; Weller, 2012) to the neglect of both its form and the organising principles under which it is subsumed (Camfield, 2007). Understandably, academics have a tendency to reify their own labour such that it becomes something that they struggle for, rather than against. However, repeatedly adopting this approach can only lead to a sense of helplessness (Postone, 2006). If, rather, we focus our critique on the form and organising principles of labour, we find that it shares the same general qualities whether it is academic or not. Thus, it is revealed as commodity-producing, with both concrete and abstract forms. By remaining focused on the form of labour, rather than its content, we can only critique it rather than reify it.
This then has implications for our understanding of the relationships between academics and virtual work, the ways in which technologies are used to organise academic labour digitally, and struggles to overcome such labour. It is our approach to conceive of ‘academic labour’ in both its concrete and abstract forms and in relation to a range of techniques and technologies. The purpose of this is to unite all workers in solidarity against labour (Krisis-Group, 1999), rather than against each other in a competitive labour market.
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