Update on ‘Beyond public and private’ research project

With the exception of a few thoughts on an unexpected and emotional encounter, I have not had much to add to this blog since completing my PhD. However, as always, work continues and is being reported on the Social Science Centre website, where Mike Neary and I post about the progress of our ISRF-funded research project: ‘Beyond Public and Private: A Model for Co-operative Higher Education‘.

You’ll see from the updates on the SSC website that we are over half way into the project, having completed three of the five planned workshops and focus groups: Pedagogy, Governance, and Legal frameworks. We are also interviewing individuals regularly and almost 80 people (students, academics, ‘co-operators’, and others) have joined our project mailing list, which clearly has the potential to become a formal research network into co-operative forms of higher education. We are meeting many really interesting and experienced educators, researchers and activists through this project, which, as we reported from the first workshop, is developing around three inter-related concerns for co-operative higher education:

1. The Social historical movement: A co-operative form of higher learning conscious of its connection to and engagement with the historical and logical development of the co-operative movement.

2. The Organisation: The institutional form of the co-operative will substantiate the political, moral and ethical values of the co-operative movement, set within an educational context.

3. The Praxis: The pedagogy will be grounded in the practices and principles of co-operative learning, recognising that much can be learned about how to be a co-operator-student/teacher (i.e. ‘scholar’), while at the same time acknowledging that co-operative practices are already endemic in radical social interactions.

Each of the workshop themes can be ‘mapped’ on to one or more of these three higher level components of the ‘model’.

I am also thinking of how other concepts might express or expand on the five themes. For example:

Pedagogy = Knowledge
Governance = Democracy
Legal = Bureaucracy
Business Models = Livelihood*
Trans-national = Solidarity

*This is a word that came out of a discussion on how we want to move away from the use of some conventional terms, such as ‘business model’, that do not adequately capture the essence of our concerns. In a world where business and work is continually in crisis, a ‘business model’ seems increasingly anachronistic to what is fundamentally required.

Our project aims to develop a ‘model’ for co-operative higher education, or perhaps a ‘framework’ is a better word to use. Nevertheless, models and frameworks are forms of useful abstractions and at this stage of our work, sketching out relational themes, concepts and approaches is a necessary and useful exercise. This has been evident in the way that the categorisation of ‘routes’ to co-operative higher education that I outlined in my earlier paper have been a useful reference during each of the workshops:

Conversion: How to convert an existing university into a co-operative, either through a planned ‘executive’ decision or out of necessity, as in a worker takeover of a failing institution. In the UK, this route would seek to maintain any remaining public sources of funding and the ‘university’ title.

Dissolution: How to create a co-operative university from the ‘inside out’, through the gradual increase of co-operative practices, such as co-operatively run research groups and departments; programmes of study in aspects of co-operation, social history, political economy, etc.; the conversion of student halls into housing co-ops; changes to procurement practices that favour co-operatives, and so on. Through this route, the university might eventually become a ‘co-op of co-ops’.

Creation: How to create a new co-operative form of higher education. This tends to be where our workshop discussions end up. It is the least compromising of each of the routes and in some ways the most ambitious. Discussions of this route are intensely practical in their focus and unashamedly utopian, too. This route draws inspiration from the huge numbers of actually existing worker and social solidarity co-ops around the world.

So, in summary what might we have with all of this?

Three routes to co-operative higher education: Conversion, dissolution, creation

Three concerns for the overall project (regardless of route): The social historical movement, the organisation, the praxis.

Five themes for practical and theoretical work (an anti-curricula or course of action): Knowledge, democracy, bureaucracy, livelihood, solidarity.

Mike Neary and I will shortly be writing up an interim report on the project at the request of the LATISS open access journal and will attempt to summarise all of this for the benefit of our own thinking and that of all the research participants.

If you would like to contribute in some way to the project, we have two more workshops (Nov 20th, Jan 29th), each followed by an online focus group, and we’d be happy to interview you too. We will also be issuing a survey in February which will be a last ditch attempt to gather data before we analyse it and write it up in the Spring.

Beyond public and private: A model for co-operative higher education

Below is a grant application which has recently been funded (£4525) by the Independent Social Research Foundation. It’s a ‘flexible grant for small groups‘ and the group in this case is the Social Science Centre (SSC).  If you’re interested in following our project and even contributing, please subscribe to project updates and join our project mailing list. Thank you.

Beyond public and private: A model for co-operative higher education

The Research Idea  

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 years now, we have been warned that our universities are in “ruins” (Readings, 1997). We campaign for the “public university” (Holmwood, 2011) but in the knowledge that we work for private corporations 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)

There is an alternative. Outside the university, there is an institutional form of co-operative association that attempts to address issues of ownership and control over the means of production through a radical form of democracy among those involved. Co-operatives are constituted on the values of autonomy, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In many cases the assets of the co-operative are held under ‘common ownership’, a social form of property that goes beyond the distinction between private and public.

This research aims to bring together scholars, students, and expert members of the co-operative movement to design a viable model for co-operative higher education. Using our experience of running a co-operative for higher education in the city of Lincoln since 2011, we will interrogate our existing constitution and pedagogic practices to develop a theoretically and practically grounded model of a ‘co-operative university’ that activists, educators and the International Co-operative Alliance could take forward.


The Social Science Centre (SSC) (http://socialsciencecentre.org.uk) organises co-operative higher education in Lincoln and is run by its members. It was conceived in response to the Coalition government’s changes to higher education funding in the UK which involved an increase in student fees up to £9,000 and defunding teaching in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. It emerged during a time when students were occupying their universities in protest against these changes and the model of public higher education in the UK was undergoing rapid marketisation and financialisation that was undemocratic (McGettigan, 2013) and imposing a “pedagogy of debt” (Williams, 2009). The SSC was not the only attempt to create a ‘free university’ (Bonnett, 2013), but it is the most sustained and lasting of these efforts. One of the reasons for this is because it was given constitutional form as a democratic member-run organisation that is constitutionally the common property of its members. Recently, the idea of a ‘co-operative university’ has gained traction among educators and scholars in part drawing inspiration from the SSC, the conversion of state schools to co-operatives and long-term efforts to teach co-operativism within higher education. (Winn, 2013)

Current approaches to understanding the changes in UK higher education remain tied to deeply rooted conceptions of public and private (Neary, 2012). Ours is not an argument for or against the privatisation of public higher education but an attempt to go beyond these categories through praxis. This praxis means not only free from financial imperatives but real academic freedom.

The Focus  

The SSC can be understood through a conceptual framework of ‘in, against and beyond’ the institutional forms in which it was constituted (Holloway, 2002). It was conceived by academics who have been developing a progressive pedagogical framework and model of curriculum development called Student as Producer within the constraints of the capitalist university (http://studentasproducer.lincoln.ac.uk). Through this work, we seek to question and reconceive the idea of the university as a social form and work against what it has become (Neary and Winn, 2009). We aim to go beyond the conventional paradigms of public and private and constitute in practice a form of higher education grounded in the work of theorists such as Walter Benjamin (1934) and Lev Vygotsky (1997), the social history, values and principles of the international co-operative movement (Yeo, 1988), and emerging practices of reciprocity which are constituting a new form of academic commons (Neary and Winn, 2012).

Our approach assumes that a new social and institutional form of higher education must be based on a pedagogic framework that offers an adequate critique of the capitalist university. Through several years of praxis, we have identified sufficient confluences between our pedagogic approach and the theory and practice of worker and social solidarity co-operatives (Conaty, 2014; Winn, 2015) to believe that a model of co-operative higher education can be developed that is adequate to the current crises. The SSC remains experimental in form and an appropriate laboratory for the creation of a co-operative university model.

Theoretical Novelty  

The research aims to develop a practical model for a co-operative university which is theoretically grounded in the concept of the Student as Producer (Neary and Winn, 2009; Neary, 2010).The theoretical basis for Student as Producer is Marx’s labour theory of value (Marx, 1976).

Student as Producer recognises that both academics and students are involved as academic workers in the production of critical-practical knowledge (Moten and Harney, 2004). Student as Producer is based on a radical, negative critique of the capitalist university as constituted on the basis of worker exploitation. It is an attempt to develop a pedagogical framework through which the organising principle for the co-operative university can be reconstituted as collaboration, sharing and commoning, already core academic values, against the exploitative values which characterise the capitalist business. This is achieved not through theoretical novelty, but by connecting theory to an actually existing organisational form: the cooperative university. Student as Producer reconstitutes the ownership of the means of production so that academic workers own the means of production of the enterprises in which they are working.

Through the specific historical innovations of worker co-operatives and ‘common ownership’, a co-operative model of higher education seems most appropriate to align with a pedagogical framework that recognises academic labour and the academic commons as the organising principle for the production of knowledge and is thus central to any consideration of a new social form of higher education, having far-reaching social, political and epistemological implications.


Our research will be undertaken by members of the SSC and invited experts. We will collectively design an integrated series of workshops inviting academics and students from the social sciences, co-operative business and management, and humanities to work with us. We will also involve historians of the co-operative movement, legal specialists, worker-members of co-operatives, and individuals who have been involved in the free university movement in the UK and elsewhere. When appropriate, we will supplement these activities with a range of qualitative research methods, including semi-structured interviews, focus groups, and surveys so as to understand how the different models of co-operative organisation might be applied to higher education and the production of knowledge.

Run as a critical participatory action research project (Kemmis, 2008) within the SSC, we aim to ensure that all participants feel able to contribute to the design and outcomes of the research. Based on “collective deliberation aimed at collective self-understanding” (ibid, 135) of our own co-operative, participants will seek to contribute, through praxis, to the development of a common model for a ‘co-operative university’. As with our pedagogical approach, our overall methodological perspective is informed by a critique of the contradictory relationship between labour and capital and the emancipatory potential inherent in the capital relation. From this viewpoint, labour is understood dialectically as both socially constituted and mediating (Postone, 1993) and the methods of our research are understood to be constituted by our immanent social conditions but also prefigurative of the emancipatory potential of our collective work.

Work Plan  

The research will take place over 12 months (April 2015 to March 2016). A timetable of actions (workshops, focus groups, etc.) will be organised in the first two months of the research process, with two months at the end given to writing up the research findings and publishing the intended model. Our proposed budget offers an outline of this timeline.

The underlying process of action research will be co-designed by the research group i.e. members of the Social Science Centre, and co-ordinated through a regular timetable of information meetings, study seminars and research design workshops. The sessions will be aimed at creating a ‘safe space’ that builds solidarity within the immediate group and with visiting guests. The researchers will produce frequent blog posts on activities and matters as they arise which will be published on the SSC website for public comment.

Over the eight months of actions and other research activities, we intend to invite other similar and supportive organisations (e.g. Co-ops UK, Co-operative College, Radical Routes, Seeds for Change, Somerset Co-op, Free University Brighton, Hospital University) to our workshop series to be participants in the co-design of a co-operative model of higher education with us. Comprehensive notes from each workshop will be published for comment immediately.

By the end of the research period, we intend to produce an agreed model for a co-operative university, including a proposed pedagogical framework, business plan, model constitutional rules for the co-operative and a proposed model for federation among co-operative universities.


It is our intention that this research will lead to the following publicly disseminated outcomes, some of which correspond with the proposed workshops:

* Proposal for a pedagogical framework for co-operative higher education

* Publication of model constitutional rules for a higher education co-operative which are supportive of the pedagogical approach

* A business model for a co-operative university

* Proposal for a federated model of higher education co-operatives

* Formal re-constitution of the Social Science Centre at AGM 2016. This will be a public event to wrap-up and report on the research process.

* Peer-reviewed paper discussing the process and outcomes of the research.

Long-term, we envisage that this work will contribute to the growing literature on co-operative higher education (Winn, 2013) as well as inform discussions about its development within the co-operative movement and among alternative and free universities worldwide. We believe that it will stimulate discussion and action within Co-operatives UK and within the International Co-operative Alliance.

In 2016, the Social Science Centre will have been running for five years and it is likely that the outcomes of this research will be formally adopted by its members. The reconstitution of the SSC will mark a second stage in its short history, providing a relatively mature example of an alternative form of higher education for educators and students to draw inspiration from and continue to develop in, against and beyond the ‘pedagogy of debt’ and the ‘ruins’ of the capitalist university.


12 months

  • April: Planning, consultation
  • May: Planning, consultation
  • June: Workshop 1: £805 (Theme: Pedagogy for co-operative higher education)
  • July: Workshop 2: £805 (Theme: Governance models for co-operative higher education)
  • August: Evaluation, planning, consultation
  • September: Evaluation, planning, consultation
  • October: Workshop 3: £805 (Theme: Legal considerations)
  • November: Workshop 4: £805 (Theme: Business models for co-operative higher education)
  • December: Evaluation, planning, consultation
  • January: Workshop 5: £805 (Theme: Global solidarity and federated co-ordination of co-operative higher education)
  • February: Evaluation, planning, consultation
  • March: Write-up, publishing of outputs and outcomes

Workshops will be held wherever it is most cost-effective, taking into account the location of participants. We anticipate most workshops being held in or within easy reach of Lincoln. Example calculations given are based on three people (e.g. invited experts, research group members) travelling overnight to each workshop.

Example workshop costs (approx. 10 participants):

Room hire: £100/day

Food: £120 (lunch for all workshop participants)

Hospitality: £75 (based on three evening meals for invited overnight guests)

Accommodation: £210 (based on three single rooms)

Travel: £300 (based on three return train fares)

TOTAL: £805

Workshops x 5 x £805 = £4025

£500 for misc. travel for interviews, individual consultations with key stakeholders

TOTAL: £4525

Co-Applicants (or Co-Investigators) 

Joss Winn, School of Education, University of Lincoln http://staff.lincoln.ac.uk/jwinn

Prof. Mike Neary, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln, http://staff.lincoln.ac.uk/mneary


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

Benjamin, W. (1934) The Author as Producer, in M. W. Jennings, H. Eiland and G. Smith (eds) (2005), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1927-1934, pp.768-82. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bhandar, B. (2013) A Right to the University, London Review of Books bloghttp://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/12/10/brenna-bhandar/a-right-to-the-university/ (accessed 16th December 2014).

Bonnett, Alastair (2013) ‘Something new in freedom’, Times Higher Education. 23rd May. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/something-new-in-freedom/2003930.article (accessed 16th December 2014)

Conaty, Pat (2014) Social Co-operatives: a democratic co-production agenda for care services in the UK. Co-operatives UK. http://www.uk.coop/sites/storage/public/downloads/social_co-operatives_report.pdf (accessed 16th December 2014)

Holloway, John (2002) Class and Classification: Against, In and Beyond Labour. In Dinerstein and Neary (eds.) The Labour Debate: An Investigation into the Theory and Reality of Capitalist Work, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.

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

Kemmis, Stephen (2008) Critical Theory and Participatory Action Research. In: Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury (eds.) The Sage Handbook of Action Research (2nd edition), London: Sage Publications.

Marx, Karl (1976) Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin Classics.

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

Moten, Fred and Harney, Stefano (2004) The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses, Social Text 22 (2), 101-115.

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2009) The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. In: Bell, Stevenson and Neary (Eds.) The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience, London: Continuum.

Neary, Mike (2010) Student as producer: a pedagogy for the avant-garde?,  Learning Exchange, 1:1. http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/4186/(accessed 16th December 2014)

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.

Postone, Moishe (1993) Time, Labour and Social Domination, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Readings, Bill (1997) The University in Ruins, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Social Science Centre http://socialsciencecentre.org.uk

Student as Producer http://studentasproducer.lincoln.ac.uk

Vygotsky, L. (1997) Educational Psychology, Boca Raton, Florida: St Lucie Press.

Williams, Jeffrey (2009) The Pedagogy of Debt. In: The Edu-Factory Collective (eds.) Toward a Global Autonomous University. pp. 89-96. New York: Autonomedia.

Winn, Joss (2013) Co-operative universities: A bibliographyhttp://josswinn.org/2013/11/co-operative-universities-a-bibliography/(accessed 16th December 2014)

Winn, Joss (2015) The co-operative university: Labour, property and pedagogy. Power and Education, 7 (1).

Yeo, Stephen (1988) New Views of Co-operation, London: Routledge.

Community education, action research and Community Development Projects (CDP)

Our new ‘course’ at the Social Science Centre is a change in direction from previous courses in that it’s a research project through which participants learn how to do research. So, through an agreed research focus, we teach and learn from each other about the value of research, how to do research, and the effect it might have. It’s ‘research-engaged teaching and learning’ in the purest sense that I can imagine it.

The course/project is called ‘Know-how: A course in do-it-ourselves education‘ and we started planning it collectively in July.  At that planning workshop we agreed that the course would be:

  • Designed as a process of enquiry, discovery and research, rather than a taught programme, based on a well organised structure, arranged in advance, but full of emergent possibility
  • Grounded in the programmes we ran last year, with a focus on the historical development of the radical co-operative movement and its relationship to education. A specific theme of common concern on which to base this approach is yet to be agreed.
  • There will be sessions on research methodology and methods associated with this form of research that aims to be transformatory and participative
  • All of this will include an aspect of critical self-consciousness about what is the SSC and what are we trying to achieve.

You can read the notes from each meeting on the SSC website. Unlike a seminar-style course, where there is set reading and a facilitator each week, this ‘course’ feels different because we’re slowly negotiating the shape of the research project and its specific focus, as well as having to make new connections in the local area and map out the terrain in various ways, physically, socially, intellectually, etc.

Last week, Andrew brought a number of publications from ‘Community Development Projects‘ that were funded by the UK government in the 1970s (influenced by the War on Poverty initiative in the US). I am only just beginning to find my way around the publications and wanted to give you an impression of these ‘action research’ projects from that time. The value of them for our own Know-how course is that they offer an important historic example of radical community-focused research (just look at the covers of the publications below to see graphic examples of what the projects produced). As I look through the publications, I ask myself questions such as, why were they funded, who were the people involved, what was the understanding at that time of ‘community’ and its relationship to global events, what did the projects achieve, how and why did they fail, did they fail? I also want to know to what extent they were conceived as educational projects?

“As Loney (1983: 23) comments, the community workers who entered the field in the late 1960s and early 1970s frequently rejected the traditional (educational) models of community work. They replaced the process-orientated ‘non-directiveness of Batten and Batten (1967) with a commitment to organizing and a readiness to take up oppositional positions (Baldock 1977).” (M. K. Smith, 2006)

The Community Development Projects were being undertaken around the time I was born, which was also a time of global crises reflected in energy supply, monetary reform, inflation, massive trade union action, and so on. In one sense the militancy of such projects seems a world apart, yet the issues of poverty, unemployment, housing, etc. are still very much with us. They offer a concrete image of locally focused research, which is the approach we’re taking at the SSC, but I wonder whether seemingly abstract events overtook them on a national and global scale.

Anyway, I’ve only just touched the surface of these documents, but wanted to present a visual overview of what was produced at that time and also recommend the digital archive of the CDP, where PDFs of 44 of the documents, as well as a bibliography and lots of images can be downloaded. There’s also a video of a recent talk about research that’s being done into the CDP. Click on the first image to browse through a carousel of covers from CDP publications. Aren’t they fantastic?!

Conference: Co-operation and Higher Education, April 26th, Lincoln

Just a final reminder that the Social Science Centre is hosting a free conference on the theme of ‘Co-operation and Higher Education’, April 26th, 10.30-4.30pm, at The Collection, Lincoln’s museum and art gallery.

I would love to see you there!

More details and registration here…

Marx on individualism, equality and democracy

As I’ve mentioned before, I am one of several scholars participating in the Social Science Centre’s course on ‘Co-operation and education‘. This week (week five), we were discussing co-operative values and principles, with a particular focus on ‘autonomy’ (4th principle) and ‘democracy’ (2nd principle). The reading for this week was Ian MacPherson’s ‘Speech Introducing the Co‐operative Identity Statement to the 1995 Manchester Congress of the ICA’, and the article on democracy from the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.

In addition to this, I also went looking for something that discussed Marx’s views on democracy, partly because he usually acts as a counter to the dominant liberal history of ideas, and also because I have been thinking about the role of democracy, equality and the individual in the context of teaching and learning in a post-capitalist form of higher education. The article I ended up reading was Springborg (1984) Karl Marx on Democracy, Participation, Voting, and Equality, Political Theory, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Nov., 1984), pp. 537-556. Below are my rough thoughts and notes on Springborg’s article…

Marx’s views on democracy share things in common with classical political philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Hegel. He viewed participatory democracy negatively as a form of radical individualism as it emphasises first and foremost the agency of the individual rather than of the community as a whole through representatives. Springborg identifies three main arguments from Marx in defence of the idea of democracy:

1. Democracy is “the essence” of the political. It is more than its legal, juridical form. In his 1844 Manuscripts and 1843 Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, communism and democracy are described separately in the same terms.

Springborg paraphrasing Marx on communism:

“the resolution of the antithesis between essence and existence, form and content, individual and species; it is the riddle of history solved and knows itself to be that solution.”


“Democracy is the resolved mystery of all constitutions. Here the constitution not only in itself, according to essence, but according to existence and actuality is returned to its real ground, actual man, the actual people, and established as its own work. The constitution appears as what it is, the free product of men… democracy is the essence of every political constitution, socialised man under the form of a particular constitution of the state… stands related to other constitutions as the genus to its species; only here the genus itself appears as an existent, and therefore opposed as a particular species to those existents which do not conform to the essence. Democracy relates to all other forms of the state as their Old Testament. Man does not exist because of the law but rather the law exists for the good of man. Democracy is human existence, while in the other political forms man has only legal existence. That is the fundamental difference of democracy.”

Springborg: “Under the aegis of democracy, first the abstract distinction between civil society and the state and second the state itself as an abstraction are surpassed. Thus “in true democracy the political state disappears.” (Marx) This is because democracy as unity of particular and universal, part and whole, is no mere constitutional form but a system whose principles actually govern.” (my emphasis)

“In democracy the constitution, the law, the state, so far as it is political constitution, is itself only a self-determination of the people, and a determinate content of the people.” (Marx)

I understand this to mean that rather than the state being an abstraction set apart from people, under a true democracy the people constitute the state (they are the “essence of the political”) to the extent that the state as a determinate abstract force in society is negated. True democracy is stateless. It is literally the ‘rule of the people’, expressed through social, human existence.

2. Democracy does not require the participation of all members of society as individuals in the decision-making process. Both direct or representative participation is to falsely conceive of the problem. Membership in a true democratic society does not demand participation in the state. The artificial distinction between society and the state is wrong in the first place.

“In a really rational state one could answer, ‘Not every single person should share in deliberating and deciding on political matters of general concern’, because the individuals share in deliberating and deciding on matters of general concern as the ‘all’, that is to say, within and as members of the society. Not all individually, but the individuals as all… Hegel presents himself with the dilemma: either civil society (the Many, the multitude) shares through deputies in deliberating and deciding on political matters of general concern or all [as] I individuals do this. This is no opposition of essence, as Hegel subsequently tries to present it, but of existence, and indeed of the most external existence, quantity. Thus, the basis which Hegel himself designated as external – the multiplicity of members – remains the best reason against the direct participation of all. The question of whether civil society should participate in the legislature either by entering it through deputies or by the direct participation of all as individuals is itself a question within the abstraction of the political state or within the abstract political state; it is an abstract political question.” (Marx)

This is, I think, a warning that questions about ‘participation’ in democracy are situated/trapped in the very conceptual approach they are trying to escape from. To suggest that everyone participate in deciding matters of political concern is to assume that the state continues to remain an abstract political force, apart from people, that benefits quantitatively from the direction of each individual. Marx wants to avoid “the methodological individualism of radical democracy.” (Springborg) In a true democracy, the state is not external to the people and therefore does not and cannot act apart from the will of individuals who act “as all.” It is a fundamentally different conception of large scale human social relations as well as posing a different “ontology” of the political. Marx notes that according to Hegel:

“In its proper form the opposition is this: the individuals participate as all, or the individuals participate as a few, as not all. In both cases allness remains merely an external plurality or totality of individuals. Allness is no essential, spiritual, actual quality of the individual. It is not something through which he would lose the character of abstract individuality. Rather, it is merely the sum total of individuality. One individuality, many individualities, all individualities. The one, the many, the all – none of these determinations changes the essence of the subject, individuality.

All as individuals should share in deliberating and deciding on political matters of general concern; that is to say, then, that all should share in this not as all but as individuals.” (Marx, summarising Hegel)

Where Marx fundamentally differs from Hegel is in his conception of how the state exists as a social form, not in abstraction but ontologically and epistemologically as its members:

“The very notion of member of the state implies their being a member of the state, a part of it, and the state having them as its part. But if they are an integral part of the state, then it is obvious that their social existence is already their actual participation in it. They are not only integral parts of the state, but the state is their integral part. To be consciously an integral part of something is to participate consciously in it, to be consciously integral to it. Without this consciousness the member of the state would be an animal.” (Marx)

To consciously ‘be’ is more than to simply ‘participate’ in something. One’s existence is already participation to the extent that the state can only exist as a form of the social existence of all individuals. What ‘activates’ this integration or transcendence is being/becoming conscious of such an existence. Marx recognises that “it is a tautology that a member of the state, a part of the state, participates in the state, and that this participation can appear only as deliberation or decision”.

“The false alternatives of political participation either as “all” or “not all” is predicated on the abstract separation of civil society and the state, which in turn falsely presumes the political to be constituted by single political acts performed by individuals, focusing exclusively on the legislature as the locus of popular participation.” (Springborg)

“On the other hand, if we are talking about definite concerns, about single political acts, then it is again obvious that not all as individuals accomplish them. Otherwise, the individual would be the true society, and would make society superfluous.” (Marx)

“Let us note that although Marx dismisses the traditional concept of the state as a real collectivity with sovereign power that can represent and be represented, he retains the notion of society as a collectivity in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. One of his objections to the possibility of all participating in political decisions making as individuals is that this proposition is based on a radical individualism that fails to see society itself as a corporate entity representative of the interests of the individuals who constitute it.” (Springborg)

“The question whether all as individuals should share in deliberating and deciding on political matters of general concern is a question that arises from the separation of the political state and civil society.” (Marx)

In a true democracy, where “civil society is actual political society”,

“…it is nonsense to make a claim which has resulted precisely from a notion of the political state as an existent separated from civil society, from the theological notion of the political state. In this situation, legislative power altogether loses the meaning of representative power. Here, the legislature is a representation in the same sense in which every function is representative. For example, the shoemaker is my representative in so far as he fulfils a social need, just as every definite social activity, because it is a species-activity, represents only the species; that is to say, it represents a determination of my own essence the way every man is the representative of the other. Here, he is representative not by virtue of something other than himself which he represents, but by virtue of what he is and does.” (Marx)

I understand this to mean that representative power in a truly democratic society is not determined by legislative power, but rather by social activity which fulfils a social need. One individual is representative of another by virtue of their social activity as a human being. Representation exists in a natural state, before and apart from the fabrication of legislative representation. The shoe-maker represents me through her social activity. I represent the shoe-maker through my social activity. Our social activity is representative of each other and all others of our species. As Springborg notes, Marx goes

“against all attempts to impose the rubric of strict equality in such a way that functional substitution becomes the test of an individual’s integrity as a person. Such levelling egalitarianism is premised on radical individualism that aims to make all persons featureless monads, alike in the sameness and incapable of actualising the rich range of potentialities that human nature promises. Marx’s argument has serious implications for some of the campaigns waged in the name of Marxist humanism, feminism, etc., which, as he predicted, merely reproduce voluntarily the prerequisites for a higher state of capitalism that devours women and children allowing no distinctions of gender, race, ethnicity, etc…” (Springborg)

“For the first time, nature [in capitalist society] becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production. In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.” (Marx, Gundrisse)

This is a reminder, I would add, that in capitalist society, efforts towards ‘equality’ serve the purpose of ensuring everyone equally has the opportunity and capacity to sell (exchange for money – a wage) their labour power, the source of capitalist wealth (value). Marx showed that this is so-called ‘freedom’ under capitalism. Rather than view civil society equally and quantitatively as an abstract ‘population’ of individuals, Marx showed how the abstraction of exchange, (based on abstract labour, the measure of which is socially necessary labour time), is the necessary basis of capitalism’s equality. Human need and the capacity to produce goods and services to meet those needs is the precondition for an equality based on exchange, which capitalism exploits by separating individuals from the means of production (private property) such that they have to sell their labouring capacity in exchange for a wage so as to meet those needs through the exchange of money.

“the individual has an existence only as a producer of exchange value, hence that the whole negation of his natural existence is already implied; that he is therefore entirely determined by society; that this further presupposes a division of labour etc., in which the individual is already posited in relations other than that of mere exchanger, etc. That therefore this presupposition by no means arises either out of the individual’s will or out of the immediate nature of the individual, but that it is, rather, historical, and posits the individual as already determined by society.” (Marx, Gundrisse)

Human need and capacity are mediated indirectly through the abstract equivalence of value in the form of money, rather than the direct and reciprocal labour of individuals. This commodified relationship under capitalism, where both labour-power and its product is commodified , is in one sense unequal in that the labourer is paid less than her labour is worth. For a portion of the day, she works for ‘free’, enabling her employer, the capitalist, to sell the product of labour power for a value which is higher (i.e. not equivalent) than it cost them to produce. Thus, value, the substance of which is abstract labour measured by socially necessary labour time (time, being the ultimate measure of equivalence), determines human equivalence in capitalist society and not the direct meeting of human needs and capacity i.e. inequality (what Marx, in the Grundrisse, called “natural differences”).

“Only the differences between their needs and between their production gives rise to exchange and to their social equation in exchange; these natural differences are therefore the precondition of their social equality in the act of exchange, and of this relation in general, in which they relate to one another as productive. Regarded from the standpoint of the natural difference between them, individual A exists as the owner of a use value for B, and B as owner of a use value for A. In this respect, their natural difference again puts them reciprocally into the relation of equality. In this respect, however, they are not indifferent to one another, but integrate with one another, have need of one another; so that individual B, as objectified in the commodity, is a need of individual A, and vice versa; so that they stand not only in an equal, but also in a social, relation to one another. This is not all. The fact that this need on the part of one can be satisfied by the product of the other, and vice versa, and that the one is capable of producing the object of the need of the other, and that each confronts the other as owner of the object of the other’s need, this proves that each of them reaches beyond his own particular need etc., as a human being, and that they relate to one another as human beings; that their common species-being [Gattungswesen] is acknowledged by all. It does not happen elsewhere — that elephants produce for tigers, or animals for other animals.” (Marx, Grundrisse)

Later Springborg elaborates further, stating that

“equality as mutually substitutable individuals is equality by virtue of a false abstraction. For what is crucial about human beings is the variety and plenitude of their talents and functions. The cultural richness and depth of society is a reflection not of mere numbers of individuals, equal and undifferentiated, but of the opposite. Thus to fix on equality as a critical concept is a sign of intellectual mediocrity that cannot cope with the problem of unity and difference.”

Furthermore, Marx

“… gave depth to the Hegelian analysis by perceiving the phenomenon of exchange, and not merely the arithmetical abstraction of society as a collection of individuals, as the basis for equality. He was thus able to interpret the old socialist slogan demanding justice according to need not as the expression of equality, pace Hegel, but as its opposite, a formula tailored to the specific differences of need and capacity characteristic of individuals. When in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, he boldly proclaimed that distribution according to need, rather than strict equality, would herald the crossing of “the narrow horizon of bourgeois right,” Marx meant what he implied: that equality was an extrapolation from the presuppositions of capitalism. He had said as much in The Holy Family, declaring that the idea of “‘equal possession’ is a political-economic one and therefore still an alienated expression.”

3. Debates over direct or participatory democracy are misled. Political participation rests on universal political suffrage: the vote. Voting, “considered philosophically… is the immediate, the direct, the existing and not simply imagined relation of civil society to the political state”. (Marx) The unity of the political and the social is symbolised by universal suffrage. “Indeed it is the struggle for universal suffrage that brings about the dissolution of the dualism of civil society and the state.” (Springborg)

Thus, the struggle to achieve legislative power is the struggle of civil society to “transform itself into political society, or to make political society into the actual society… [this] shows itself as the drive for the most fully possible universal participation in legislative power.” (Marx) Legislature then, is “an articulation of the political will of the community as such”. (Springborg) Marx argues that it is not the depth of engagement in legislature but the universalism of suffrage that is key, whether active or passive.

“It is not a question of whether civil society should exercise legislative power through deputies or through all as individuals. Rather, it is a question of the extension and greatest possible universalisation of voting, of active as well as passive suffrage.” (Marx)

Rather than see voting as a meaningless exercise, it should be considered philosophically:

“Voting is not considered philosophically, that is, not in terms of its proper nature, if it is considered in relation to the crown or the executive. The vote is the actual relation of actual civil society to the civil society of the legislature, to the representative element. in other words, the vote is the immediate, the direct, the existing and not simply imagined relation of civil society to the political state. It therefore goes without saying that the vote is the chief political interest of actual civil society. In unrestricted suffrage, both active and passive, civil society has actually raised itself for the first time to an abstraction of itself, to political existence as its true universal and essential existence. But the full achievement of this abstraction is at once also the transcendence [Aufhebung] of the abstraction. In actually establishing its political existence as its true existence civil society has simultaneously established its civil existence, in distinction from its political existence, as inessential. And with the one separated, the other, its opposite, falls. Within the abstract political state the reform of voting advances the dissolution [Auflösung] of this political state, but also the dissolution of civil society.” (Marx)

In theory then, universal suffrage transforms, for the first time, the existence of civil society into a political existence. The political state is no longer an abstraction and civil society, its dialectical opposite, is dissolved, too. The outcome of the synthesis of this dialectic, enabled by universal suffrage, is the political existence of all transformed into true social existence. This dissolution, I think, is resolved gradually through the praxis of consciously becoming political: At first with the struggle towards universal suffrage; and then the struggle to understand what this means philosophically and recognise that out-dated and out-moded legislation is no longer deemed suitable or necessary to the historical material conditions of this political existence. Such conditions are conditions of abundance that allow the “natural differences” among people to labour directly with one-another reciprocally, not mediated by the equivalence of exchange value. To labour ‘directly’ does not necessarily mean ‘local’ to one-another face-to-face, but rather directly meeting need with capacity regardless of and without concern for ‘equivalence’.

What does this mean for democracy, equality and freedom in post-capitalist society? Democracy will be the social existence of individuals who no longer have a juridical existence quantified by an abstract state.  A political existence is to be (ontologically and epistemologically) a social human being. i.e. not an individual. Equality will be mutual recognition of the difference in our needs and capacities i.e. inequality. Freedom will be a life of non-reciprocity where ‘equivalence’ is redefined as the meeting of one person’s needs with the abundant social capacity of others. It will be a freedom which tends to our natural differences (not ‘natural rights’), undetermined by ‘exchange’ conceived as an abstract calculation of one’s value.

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

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

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


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

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

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