The University-Factory?

18 Mar

The relationship between the university and capitalism is the key to the politics of 3rd level education. But the nature of this relationship is far from clear. We are perhaps familiar with the argument that neo-liberalism has eroded the idea of ‘the public’ while advancing the logic of the market in all directions. As far as the university goes this usually means two things. First, 3rd level education has become a commodity more than a right. This takes the form of increasing registration fees, the threatened reintroduction of full fees, but also the corporate logic which pervades university management structures and treats students as ‘consumers’. Secondly, and related to the last point, the management of the university today resembles that of a business, with output target’s, measurements of productivity, proliferating bureaucratic control, and an emphasis on competition both within the university and in the global academic rat race.

Taken as a whole, this amounts to a general subordination of the university to capitalist production. However, there is another analysis, more dominant particularly in Italy, which conceptualizes the relationship between the university and capitalism differently. This perspective, associated with writers like Antonio Negri, Andrea Fumagali, Christan Marazzi and Maurizio Lazarato, argues that the university is directly a site of capitalist production.

The argument here involves a historical analysis of the development of European capitalism which sees fordist productiongiving way to post-fordist or immaterial production. In response to the power of the workers movement as well as the new social movements around 1968, capitalist production shifted from the centrality of mass manufacturing or industrial production to immaterial production, i.e. services, information, culture, desire, communication etc. In this context knowledge is no longer something separate from work or exploitation. Much of this analysis derives from an interpretation of a passage from Marx’ Grundrisse, usually referred to as the ‘fragment on machines’. This passage argues that within capitalist production the role of knowledge, primarily but not exclusively scientific knowledge, is steadily increasing. As such Marx predicts that what he calls the ‘general intellect’, the overall and collective social knowledge, will increasingly emerge as a ‘direct force of production’.

One of the interesting things about this analysis, especially as developed by Italian Autonomist politics, is the argument that capitalist production has extended outside the workplace across the entire social space. Under this form of capitalism the nature of exploitation changes in important ways. Most significantly, production no longer takes place within a factory controlled by the capital. Production can take place wherever people share knowledge, transmit information, generate ideas and so on (the internet being the paradigmatic example). Rather than the disappearance of the factory, it is perhaps better to understand this as the emergence of the ‘social factory’, in which the basic fabric of social life becomes productive in itself. This production is then ‘captured’ by capital.

In some instances it seems like the establishment have been quicker to grasp this shift in production than the radical left has. Mary Coughlin, former Minster for Enterprise Trade and Employment, talks of ‘the capacity to capture and transform…ideas…into commercial reality” while Brian Cowen celebrates the progress made in “capturing, protecting and commercialising ideas and know-how”. As Hardt and Negri argue in their latest book,Commonwealth, this type of capitalism resembles what Marx called ‘primitive accumulation’ or ‘accumulation by expropriation’. In other words, capital pillages collective immaterial wealth. Just as the enclosure of common lands in the 18th century was a form of capitalist accumulation, today capital ‘encloses’ knowledge, innovation, creativity and so on. Patenting and copyright are the clearest example here. When a company patents a scientific innovation, the centuries of collective human experience and learning that underpin that innovation are appropriated and privatised.

This has implications both for how we understand the transformations taking place in the university and in terms of how we understand the struggle against them. First of all, if knowledge becomes a direct force of production this means that the neo-liberal managerialism mentioned above is more about controlling production than eroding public services. The neo-liberal attack on the university is not just a symptom of anti-working class politics, but an element of a transformation in the form of capitalist production.

The second implication of this analysis relates to struggles at the university. These struggles are no longer about defending public services but direct struggles against capitalist production, analogous to the factory based struggles of the 20the century. Reappropriating the university becomes a 21st century version of taking control of the means of production. Moreover, the traditional distinction between ‘workers’ and ‘students’ looses relevance: if the university is a factory than students are workers, in the sense that they are figures of production, they are part of the productive web of contemporary capitalism.

The two analyses described here are the dominant ones in terms of the radical university movements in Europe, and they have relatively different prominence in different countries. Whereas UK groups or our own Free Education for Everyone are more likely to talk about defending public services and education as a right, Italian and Spanish movements are more likely to talk about occupying the university as a ‘strike’ against ‘cognitive capitalism’. Organisations like the UniNomada in Spain, Bartelby in Bologna or the transnational collective edu-factory are promoters of the second analysis. Most of the student movement in the UK seems to be more oriented towards the first. Indeed, on February 13th-15th student movements from around the world met in Paris to talk about organising a European wide student movement against austerity, and some of the differences between the various analytical perspectives were evident. That said, it would be wrong to treat this as some kind of ideological schism.

Whatever your take, the relationship between the university and capitalism, as well as the relationship between knowledge and production, will continue to be definitive issues.

Mick O’Broin



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