Value production and struggle in the classroom: teachers within, against and beyond capital.

Author:Harvie, David


Marxists have long recognised that educators play a key role in the reproduction of capitalist relations f production in general, and of that special commodity, labour power, in particular. Bowles and Gintis, for example, in their Schooling in Capitalist America (1976), set out to demonstrate the education system's role in socialising young people for the workplace, while David Yaffe agrees that 'Those who are engaged with training productive workers are involved with changing the special commodity labour power itself' (1976: 12). But for most classical Marxists, educators do not labour within that 'hidden abode of production' in which value and surplus value are produced, in which 'capital is itself produced' (Marx, 1976a: 279-80). Rather, educators have been considered to be unproductive labourers and, perhaps, part of the 'middle class'. For instance, Kevin Harris has argued that 'Economically, teachers are positioned between the capitalists and the working class, and bear features common to both. They belong to a middle class, positioned between the global function of capital and the function of collective labourer, sharing both functions' (1982: 128). For Althusser (e.g. 1972), teachers and the education system form part of the 'ideological state apparatus', whose role it is to generate and install in individuals the dominant system of values and ideas.

I propose here an alternative perspective to that of classical Marxism, suggesting (in Section I) that we should, in fact, understand teachers as productive labourers: that is, as producers of value and surplus value. (This is not to say that educators produce value and surplus value instead of (re)producing 'ideology' and capitalist social relations. Rather, the production of commodities--value--is inseparable from the reproduction of the capital relation.) I argue, first, that teachers are in fact producers (or rather, co-producers) of the commodity labour power. Through their shaping of this special commodity they also produce surplus value, although this is realised only through the exploitation of the new labour power. Second, I suggest that we should understand teachers' labour as directly value-producing, since there is a tendency for this labour to take the form of alienated and abstract labour, where abstract labour is the substance of value. Part of this second argument hinges on the question of commensurability: I suggest that the imposition of metrics is part of capital's strategy to make diverse teaching (and other) activities commensurable.

Many of the issues are not new. Schools and universities have always been of central importance to the reproduction of variable capital and hence to the accumulation of capital, as theorists of the 'social factory' recognised early on (see, e.g. Tronti, 1973, or Cleveland Modern Times Group, 1976). In particular, my argument here extends and adapts that of Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James (1972) and other participants in the domestic labour debate of the 1970s, who argued that housework is productive of value for capital. And in Discipline and Punish, Foucault discusses the development of 'educational space', which, from the eighteenth century onwards, comes to 'function ... also as a machine for supervising, hierarchizing, rewarding' (1977: 147).

But education has undergone widespread restructuring since the 1970S, largely in response to the crises and struggles of that decade, (1) and it is therefore useful to revisit these issues. 'Warwick University Ltd' (Thompson, 1970) was a forerunner in consciously attempting to align itself with the needs of capital; but education systems and institutions globally have now become a terrain for marketisation agendas (Levidow, 2002; Rikowski, 2001). Ovetz (1996) and the contributors to Steal This University (Johnson et al., 2003), for instance, chart the 'entrepreneurialisation of the universities' and the 'rise of the corporate university' in the United States. 'What is new about today's university is not only that it serves the corporation--for it always has done that--but that it emulates it' (Johnson et al., 2003: 13). Universities themselves 'are becoming businesses' (Ovetz, 1996: 113). In the United Kingdom, many neoliberal trends are articulated in the government's White Paper on The Future of Higher Education (DfES, 2003). Critiquing this document, and state education reforms more generally, Robinson and Tormey (2003) suggest that a 'once "independent" public service [is being reduced] to a wing of capital.... [T]he penetration of neoliberal assumptions goes well beyond the formal status of the higher education sector, it permeates every assumption about the rationale of education itself'. While the situations in the uK and the us are not identical, there are many common themes, also shared by education systems in other developed states. These include the growth of 'for-profit' education institutions; the invasive intervention of both private-sector corporations and government in the day-to-day running of 'public' universities; the increasing importance of market relations; management's use of 'performance indicators', 'performance management' and various forms of 'performance-related pay' (or 'merit pay'); the rhetoric of 'efficiency' and 'global competitiveness'; and the 'proletarianisation' of academics.

In the global South, higher education has been a casualty of the more general imposition of neoliberal policies, as indebted governments have been forced by the IMF and World Bank to implement structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) (Levidow, 2002). African universities have been hit particularly hard. SAP 'conditionalities' have included the removal of student subsidies, currency devaluation--which has inflated the cost of educational materials--and cuts in government funding for education. While the Bank argues that SAPS present African governments with 'a golden opportunity to "increase the efficiency of resource use"', and has itself promoted various restructuring packages, teachers and students who have protested against these policies, and against SAPs more generally, have frequently faced repression (Caffentzis, 2000: 5-8).

The neoliberal agenda for education means that teachers' role in capital's reproduction and development is now unambiguous. Moreover, the neoliberal project's obsession with 'performance', 'efficiency', external controls and measure (metrics) has the effect of deepening the alienated-and-abstract-labour characteristics of concrete teaching activities. Teaching labour thus becomes directly value-producing and, inasmuch as they are productive of value, educators exist within capital.

But this is only one side of the story. Educators (and students) also struggle: against the capitalist imposition of work; against neoliberalism as it manifests itself on- and off-campus; against their own function as producers of labour power; and for their own needs. Globally, education is contested terrain. Sometimes teachers' struggles are collective and very visible. Other times, they are both more individualised and hidden. Often, the latter forms of struggle are not even recognised as such, and we can only detect their existence through observing capital's response. Struggles around education, whether collective or individual, are rarely consciously anticapitalist.

Even so, struggles against manifestations of neoliberalism nevertheless impede capitalist development, and hence are against capital. Frequently, struggles are ambiguous: they may, for instance, impose work on others, or drive capital's development in alternative directions. But struggles may also--again, this is rarely conscious posit a transcendence of the capital relation. To the extent that educators struggle, I suggest (in Section 2) that we should understand them as unproductive of value for capital and as existing against-and-beyond capital.

This understanding of productive and unproductive labour clearly differs from that of classical Marxism, including Marx's own explicit writings on the distinction. (2) I do not seek to demonstrate logically that the classical Marxist distinction between productive and unproductive labour is somehow wrong or incorrect. Such a demonstration may not even be possible. But I do believe that the perspective suggested in this paper is more useful in helping us to understand the ways in which teachers produce and reproduce capitalist social relations, and hence to appreciate teachers' potential power to rupture this (re)production. In fact, this understanding can help us to recognise the ways in which teachers' existing practices already rupture, and even go beyond or transcend, the capital relation: that is, are productive of struggles. As Brian Massumi suggests in his translator's foreword to Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus (1988): 'The question is not: is it true? But: does it work?'

  1. Producing value in the classroom; or Educators within capital

1.1 Classical Marxism and unproductive labour

Marx explicitly excluded labour whose function consists of reproducing labour power from being considered productive: 'Hence the former class [productive labourers] will produce immediate, material wealth consisting of commodities, all commodities except those which consist of labour-power itself.... In so far therefore as we leave labour-power itself out of account, productive labour is labour which produces commodities' (Marx, 1969: 161 & 172; my emphasis). Classical Marxists have tended to follow Marx's lead on this issue. For example, Simon Mohun suggests that

 Labour-power is not a produced commodity; it is a commodified aspect of human beings, and human beings are not produced in any valorisation process. It might be suggestive for some purposes to consider that labour process which (re)produces people, but the relations involved are not class ones, there is no private property in the means of

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