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.


‘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)


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


“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.


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)