Hacking in the University: Contesting the Valorisation of Academic Labour

In this article I argue for a different way of understanding the emergence of hacker culture. In doing so, I outline an account of ‘the university’ as an institution that provided the material and subsequent intellectual conditions that early hackers were drawn to and in which they worked. I argue that hacking was originally a form of academic labour that emerged out of the intensification and valorisation of scientific research within the institutional context of the university. The reproduction of hacking as a form of academic labour took place over many decades as academics and their institutions shifted from an ideal of unproductive, communal science to a more productive, entrepreneurial approach to the production of knowledge.  As such, I view hacking as a peculiar, historically situated form of labour that arose out of the contradictions of the academy: vocation vs. profession; teaching vs. research; basic vs. applied research; research vs. development; private vs. public; war vs. peace; institutional autonomy vs. state dependence; scientific communalism vs. intellectual property.

Download the full article from tripleC

The Valorisation of the Academy

I’m drafting an article based on a series of blog posts I wrote on early hacker culture. I discuss four methods by which scientific research has been ‘valorised’ within US higher education since the late nineteenth century: Land grants and consultancy; Patents; War-time funding; and Venture Capital. Here’s my first attempt to outline what I mean by ‘valorisation’. I think it complements recent notes I’ve been writing here on academic labour and the university as a means of production.

Prior to outlining the specific methods of valorisation that have taken place within the US academy, I should briefly explain what I mean by this term.

In his critique of political economy, Marx developed the “general formula of capital”, M-C-M’. This refers to the way money (M) is advanced to purchase a commodity (C) in order to produce new commodities that are sold for a profit, creating more money. With the commodities purchased, ‘the capitalist’ buys the means of production (MP) and labour-power (L), transforming money capital into productive capital (P).  As a generalised method of creating wealth, this process is historically unique to capitalism. The circuit of capitalist valorisation can be illustrated as:

Marx's "general formula of capital"
Marx’s “general formula of capital”

In capitalist societies, the university is a means of production. In this context, the ‘means of production’ refers to the university’s structural, technological and bureaucratic configuration for the production of knowledge. The university incorporates prior knowledge into its production process and the knowledge it produces is exchanged through teaching, consultancy, technology transfers, etc. and so offered as the object of labour elsewhere, resulting in capital accumulation (i.e. ‘economic growth’). ‘Labour-power’ refers to creative human potential, which is applied as ‘labour’. The individual exchanges their human ‘labour-power’ (itself a commodity) for a wage, and the required application of ‘labour power’ as ‘labour’ is defined by their employment contract. It is an individual’s potential to undertake labour (i.e. ‘labour-power’) and the specific application of that potential within the given academic context that she works that we refer to ordinarily as ‘labour’. Combining labour-power with the means of production produces a ‘use-value’ (e.g. a product or service) for the purpose of exchange upon which it will realise an ‘exchange value’, or more commonly ‘value’, in the form of money. The dual form of use-value and exchange-value is what defines a ‘commodity’. Labour is itself such a commodity, and labour produces such commodities. In this way, labour is the original source and “substance” of value.

In the context of the university, we might well ask, “who is the capitalist” in this valorisation process? On one level, as I will show, we can point to a combination of state and industry actors, as well as notable university leaders each of whom takes on the role of ‘capitalist’ by helping to ensure the advance of money capital and the production of commodities. However, on a more abstract, social level, as Marx described, ‘capital’ itself is the “automatic subject”, a determinate logic of valorisation which ‘the capitalist’ personifies.

It is only insofar as the appropriation of ever more wealth in the abstract is the sole motive behind his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, i.e., as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. Use-values must therefore never be treated as the immediate aim of the capitalist; nor must the profit on any single transaction. His aim is rather the unceasing movement of profit-making. (Capital, 1:254)

In a mature, industrial capitalist economy, both the owners of capital (e.g. the state, trustees, governors) and wage-workers (e.g. hackers) are subsumed under this totalising social imperative. Increases in productivity across society compel the owners of capital to act within the ‘logic’ of self-valorising value (i.e. capital) as they compete with other local, national and international capitals to produce value relative to the productivity of labour-power and the means of production combined. An initial increase in productivity will allow a greater amount of surplus value (i.e. profit) to be produced until those improvements in productivity have been generalised across society, and competing capitals undercut each other so as to win market share. This “iron law of competition” (Heinrich, 2012: 108) compels the owners of capital (who are capital personified), to organise production around this imperative. By undertaking research and teaching students, universities are both subject to this production process and are vital to the improvement of productivity and labour elsewhere in society.

It is within this context of US capitalist industrialisation in the late 19th century that ‘land grant’ universities were established, setting in motion the widespread valorisation of natural capital through the sale of federal land so as to establish the structural, technological and bureaucratic configuration for the production of knowledge. “Nowhere was the trend towards occupational utility more apparent or more widely illustrated than in the development of land-grant colleges.” (Lucas, 1994: 146).

Open education. From the freedom of things to the freedom of people

In this book chapter I offer a critical analysis of Open Education, a growing international movement of educators and educational institutions who, through the use of the Internet, seek to provide universal access to knowledge. The purpose of this analysis is to examine the production of value through technological virtuality, in the concrete labour process of teaching and learning.

Published in Towards Teaching in Public: Reshaping the Modern University

Download the full chapter