Is the worker co-operative form suitable for a university? (Part 1)

Were a university run as a worker co-operative, it would likely be characterised by the following definition, approved by the International Co-operative Alliance in 2005 1.

Worker cooperatives contain the following basic characters:

  1. They have the objective of creating and maintaining sustainable jobs and generating wealth, to improve the quality of life of its worker-members, dignify human work, allow workers’ democratic self-management and promote community and local development.
  2. The free and voluntary membership of their members, in order to contribute with their personal work and economic resources, is conditioned by the existence of workplaces.
  3. As a general rule, work shall be carried out by the members. This implies that the majority of the workers in a given worker cooperative enterprise are members and vice versa.
  4. The worker-members’ relation with their cooperative shall be considered as different to that of conventional wage-based labour and to that of autonomous individual work.
  5. Their internal regulation is formally defined by regimes that are democratically agreed upon and accepted by the worker-members.
  6. They shall be autonomous and independent, before the State and third parties, in their labour relations and management, and in the usage and management of the means of production.

Using this declaration, we might re-phrase it in language more suited to higher education. In my conception of a co-operative university, there is no formal distinction between a member who undertakes research, teaching, cleaning, administration, etc. As such, there is no formal distinction between teacher or student either. In such an organisation, scholars would research, teach, study, learn, undertake administration and clean. The division of labour would be democratically governed so that it is radically less divided. I therefore refer to all members as ‘scholars’ through their diverse contribution to the production of knowledge. This was something we discussed at length during the formation of the Social Science Centre, Lincoln.  The intention here is the dissolution of production and consumption and therefore the dissolution of exchange value and simultaneously the dissolution of value mediated by exchange. As ‘scholars’, those individuals in a truly democratic organisation relate to one-another directly.  Abolishing the formal distinction between teacher and student raises a number of questions that I will address elsewhere (e.g. without such an exchange relation, how does the co-operative generate wealth? What is its relationship with other organisations and with the State?)

So, to re-phrase the above definition:

A co-operative university contains the following basic characters:

  1. This university has the objective of creating and maintaining sustainable jobs and generating wealth, to improve the quality of life of its scholars, dignify human work, allow scholars’ democratic self-management and promote community and local development.
  2. The free and voluntary membership of its members, in order to contribute with their personal work and economic resources, is conditioned by the existence of workplaces.
  3. As a general rule, work shall be carried out by the members. This implies that the majority of the scholars in the university are members and vice versa.
  4. The scholar-members’ relation with their university shall be considered as different to that of conventional wage-based labour and to that of autonomous individual work.
  5. Their internal regulation is formally defined by regimes that are democratically agreed upon and accepted by the scholar-members.
  6. They shall be autonomous and independent, before the State and third parties, in their labour relations and management, and in the usage and management of the means of production.

A few notes:

When I use the term, ‘university’, I mean any site, physical or virtual, where scholars (i.e. teachers and students) convene for the purposes of research-based teaching and learning. I anticipate that a co-operative university would, in some ways, redefine what a university might be, and by extension, what we mean by ‘higher education’, too. In defining a ‘co-operative university’, we also have to re-define, or drop altogether, related key terms (e.g. higher education, university, student, teacher, research, knowledge, etc.)

Worker co-operatives are defined in productivist language. This may seem at odds with some people’s understanding of a university, thinking that it primarily exists to ‘educate’ and not to ‘produce’. My own view is that a capitalist university (that is, a university funded by a capitalist state or a university operating in a capitalist market), exists for the production of value in the commodity form of knowledge, and for the self-reproduction of workers and therefore of capital. The university is, therefore, a ‘means of production’. If we are against this tendency, there is a danger that by adopting the worker co-operative form we reinforce the productivist character of the university. However, I think there is much to be gained from drawing on the history and experience of the (worker) co-operative movement, and that it might be seen as a transitional form to a post-capitalist form of social relations.

For a general introduction to worker co-operatives see:

Wikipedia: Worker cooperative

How to set up a Worker’s Co-op (PDF)

The worker co-operative code (PDF)

Worker co-operative case studies

On Marx, socialism and worker co-operatives (and my initial critique), see:

The association of free and equal producers

Notes towards a critique of ‘Labour Managed Firms’


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.

Notes on the university and the means of production

1. Consumption and production: The dominant discourse around higher education in the UK is its marketisation, i.e. knowledge as a commodity and universities as competing capitals.  Students are increasingly indentured consumers. Lectures are reduced to ‘content’ and academics are the original knowledge workers. At Lincoln, we have a strategy to resist this: Student as Producer. It is an intervention led by my colleague Mike Neary, based on a number of intellectual projects, including the critical social theory of Walter Benjamin [PDF].  Student as Producer has become the organising principle for teaching and learning across the entire institution. Student as Producer is against the marketisation of higher education. It is an attempt to shift the discourse away from the exchange of knowledge towards the production of knowledge. In essence, we ask what is higher education for? It is for the production of knowledge.

2. Technology for the production of knowledge: My work in the Centre for Educational Research and Development focuses on the role of technology in higher education. The role of technology in higher education is the same as the role of technology in other industries, which I do not need to elaborate here. The use of technology in higher education is not static nor linear. Scientific research undertaken in universities leads to the development of new technologies (e.g. computers) which confront students and academics when commodified. My particular interest in the role of technology in higher education is not, as is often the case, the pedagogical use of technology (e.g. the use of computers to support teaching and learning), but rather the institutional, infrastructural use of technology (e.g. the use of computers for scholarly communication). If we view ‘the university’ as an institution that exists for the production of knowledge, then we arrive at the question: what are the means of production in higher education? They are the same as any other industry: labour, science and technology, and capital. Each of these words have common meanings that we use in every day speech, but those ‘common sense’ and naturalised uses derive from historical, social and epistemological developments over hundreds of years.

3. Science as the instrument of capital accumulation: I had hoped, before now, to have written up my notes on Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s magnificent and out-of-print book, Intellectual and Manual Labour. A Critique of Epistemology [PDF]. What is significant here about Sohn-Rethel’s critique is his focus on the history, purpose and use of science. He boldly demonstrates that the history of science (i.e. since Galileo’s law of inertial motion), is pre-dated by and derived from the ‘real abstraction’ of the exchange of commodities. By ‘real abstraction’, he refers to abstract concepts having real, concrete effects. Often, we may not even be aware of or understand the abstraction (e.g. ‘value’), only its material outcome. Put another way, our lived historical experience is dominated (i.e. controlled) by abstraction, which is rooted in the history of commodity exchange. Sohn-Rethel attempts a remarkable study of the development of abstract thought, which I cannot do justice to here,  but to put it crudely, he argues that the origins of abstract thought are to be found in the invention of money as a ‘universal equivalent’ for the exchange of commodities, and that modern scientific theory is “knowledge of nature in commodity form” (132). This has deep and wide-ranging implications, not least in a higher education institution which produces scientific knowledge. If, as Sohn-Rethel argues, all science today is bourgeois science geared towards the purpose of capital accumulation,  higher education is at the heart of this configuration. We are reminded of this when we are told that higher education is an important engine for economic growth. In that claim, higher education is defined as a means of commodity production: it is the producer of scientific knowledge and all its labour power and infrastructure must in some way contribute to this production. But it doesn’t, yet, and there lies the struggle. Not in the circulation of knowledge, but in the production of knowledge.

4. The death of the guilds: In his study of the Death of the Guilds, Krause identifies the relatively recent re-configuration of academia by the capitalist mode of production. His work can be related to Sohn-Rethel, in that they both discuss the transition from artisanal to scientific modes of production; from a mode of production where the intellectual and manual labour were united, to a mode of production where the head (abstract thought) and the hand (craft) are separated. Artisans “owned the means of production” (S-R, 117) and guilds are groups of workers that exercise political power “primarily for their own ends.” (Krause, x). Guilds own the means of production. Both Krause and Sohn-Rethel recognise that the death of the guilds and the artisan mode of production that they were formed to protect, began to crumble with the early growth of capitalism in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For Sohn-Rethel, the writing was on the wall with the development of mathematics. “It is no exaggeration to say that one can measure the extent of division of head and hand by the inroad of mathematics in any particular task.” (113). For Krause, writing in 1996, the guild model of political power in academia only remained to some extent in the Oxbridge colleges. Krause and Sohn-Rethel are both useful for understanding the transformation of scientific research and teaching towards the capitalist mode of production (i.e. economic growth), which in recent years is put forward by the higher education sector as a justification of its continued public funding.

5. The birth of the commons: We can be certain that today, ‘the university’ is an institution organised bureaucratically, technologically, and epistemologically for the production of knowledge which is exchanged as a commodity. No institution can exist at such scale and compete nationally and globally in any other configuration. However, in the last decade or so, the Open Access (OA) movement has developed from within academia in a way that resembles the power of the guilds. The objective of Open Access is to provide scholarly literature online to the public, free of cost and most copyright restrictions. Open Access is a scholarly movement that is wielding political power and has deep implications for the mode and means of the production of knowledge in higher education. If openness within higher education is understood as a ‘recursive public’ (Kelty, 2008), we can observe and predict that further recursions will be deemed necessary to support the logic of Open Access: Open Data, so that research can be verified and built upon; Open Science, where the research process is conducted publicly; Open Source, where the research tools and software algorithms are transparent and accessible; and Open Peer Review, where the verification of research findings are themselves open to scrutiny for bias and inconsistency. Each of these recursions requires changes to the technological, social and bureaucratic configuration of universities (this gradual reconfiguration occupies much of my day-to-day work). Although the concept of recursion suggests a series of steps or iterations, each recursive element can occur concurrently, deferring its limits to the next process while continuing to unfold. As Kelty has noted, “the ‘depth’ of the recursion is determined by the openness necessary for the project itself.” (2008:30). The depth of recursion required by the logic of OA is still being worked out and remains a contested public through which the nature and purpose of science is being questioned. Kelty’s ‘recursive public’ is nothing more than a generalisation of political struggle expressed in terms immanent to its subject. Open Access has recursive implications that amount to the socialisation of the means of production of science. The production of a scientific commons. Communism.

I am grateful to Richard Hall for making clear to me something I had not fully grasped until now. The university itself is a means of production.