This is my contribution to edu-factory. I’ve previously expressed my unease with the idea of the autonomous university, that’s what the following is all about.

As far as I understand, the organizers behind the edu-factory network have two goals for the project, the critical analysis of the university and the elaboration of a global autonomous university. These goals work in tandem. The former occurs in such a way as to lay the groundwork for the latter; the latter continues the former and acts to attempt to change the problems diagnosed in the former. I support both of these goals. I have participated and continue to participate to some extent in the autonomous university projects where I live, and I have been in many a fantastic reading group, which are smaller instances of the same spirit. I do these things because the use values produced in those settings – including this list serve – are precious to me. That said, I believe the autonomous university is not going to provide any resolution to the problems diagnosed in the critique of the university. Or rather, it will only address a few problems and will leave aside some very important other problems. More simply, I don’t think the autonomous university will make as big of an impact as I think the organizers of the edu-factory network seem to think it will make on the edu-factory in which many of us work. I do not mean to be disrespectful or to devalue the hard work of anyone involved in the project. On the contrary, it is my respect for a great many of the people involved which compels me to state this rather than simply quietly unsubscribe from the email list and delink from the network.

The project of the autonomous university sounds to me like basically an attempt to create a worker run cooperative. I am all for worker run cooperatives. I have a great deal of respect for the various radical traditions and movements which used co-ops as part of their vision of a new society, calling that new society the “cooperative commonwealth” and the “commonwealth of toil.” That vision speaks to me – I would eventually like to see a society where all labor occurs in situations something like worker run cooperatives. Still, establishing worker run cooperatives strikes me as an insufficient answer to the problems of the global
edu-factory.

While the autonomous university may have some role to play, it is not going to achieve the needed changes in the edu-factory. Consider the first line of the edu-factory manifesto (online here) which asserts “As was the factory, so now is the university.” This assertion can be read to support my views about the limits to which the autonomous university can transform the edu-factory. To look at problems and struggles in factories and say “the answer is to start our own autonomous factory!” would be a little odd. (Certainly there have been big successes in the history of the working class in the occupation and self-management of factories and other sites, but these successes are relatively rare and have occurred in the context of mass mobilizations.) Like wise it would be odd to look at struggles in food service or in sexwork and respond with “let’s start our own food service business!” or “let’s start an autonomous sexwork business!” Why is it less odd to look at problems and struggles in universities and say “let’s start our own university”? I think there’s an implication in the call for an autonomous university that the labor process of the university can be separated from the valorization process.

Leaving that aside, there is an important difference between, on the one hand, fighting the valorization process via workplace organizing and, on the other hand, experiencing and elaborating better labor process via self-managed alternatives. This is basically the difference between forming a union and starting a workers’ run co-op. I wish only the best for anyone in any industry who strikes out on the latter route, but I doubt it will either

a) survive attacks on it from their capitalist competitors [co-ops will survive because the market allows them to, because they flourish in the market becoming capitalist businesses, or because others wage union struggles and other forms of class conflict]

or

b) pose much of a challenge at all for powers and forces and trends in the industry that making conditions in the industry worse.

Again, there’s a big difference between building organization as in building and exercising power and building organization as some sort of alternative production arrangement.

Then again, what do I know? Perhaps in some contexts a worker run co-op is precisely the answer for some. Not everyone lives and works where I do. Far be it from me to tell others that their answers are not answers. I will say that the autonomous university does not address the majority of the most pressing problems I experience as someone employed in the edufactory. I sell my labor power to a university. My problems in the edufactory result from that fact. Very few of those problems differ substantially from the problems I’ve experienced selling my labor power in other settings. The problems I have in the edufactory result from – and could fixed by changes is – the balance of power in the workplace. Changing the balance of
workplace power is a matter of creating organization that seeks to exercise power in the workplace and against the workplace (against the valorization process). Changing the balance of workplace power for employees is not a matter of alternative institutions outside of the workplace which produce similar use values to those produced in the workplace. Put simply, what we need are not co-ops but unions (or, if others prefer, councils, soviets).

Unless the autonomous university becomes a source of income for education workers or becomes a resource for the production of workplace power within the edufactory, it will not change the dynamics of the edufactory significantly and will not improve my life much as an edufactory worker. With regard to the autonomous university as a worker run cooperative which provides people with income, I have grave doubts over that. It could happen and I will welcome it if it does, but my guess is that unless it happens alongside massive workplace struggle inside the edufactory the autonomous university would end up either a marginal or privileged space for a few, or just another competitor university, albeit a more democratic and pleasant one to work. On the other hand, with regard to the autonomous university as training and research body for the production of workplace power, I think that idea has a great deal of possibility. Where I live and work, we have conducted several workplace organizing trainings for university employees and workers in other industries. Those have been moderately successful. We focus on basic matters of acting together to exert power in the workplace, give some examples of different ways people have done this in their different workplaces, and we try to give people some resources for figuring how they would build an organization and exert power in their own particular workplaces.

Two final points. First point: I am troubled by the inter-related claims to the centrality of the edu-factory in contemporary capitalism, claims to an epochal shift which has rendered the present incredibly different from the past, and claims that the nature of the valorization process is tremendously different for us – either spatially because the edu-factory is different from other-factories or temporally because the change of era has created a mutation in the mode of valorization. These claims strike me as of questionable truth and strike me as predicated on mistaking the valorization process for the labor process, (I have used these terms throughout, if anyone isn’t familiar with them, I take them from chapter 7 of volume one of Marx’s Capital). Certainly the substance of our work is quite different from other forms of work, just as other forms of work all differ from each other, but our relationships to our employers and to capital is not really so different. More importantly, these claims strike me as moving in precisely the wrong direction. I have already written in earlier emails that I feel there is a rhetorical slip in our discussions about the edufactory: we speak of ourselves as intellectual laborers – as if other labors lack an intellectual content – and we speak of ourselves inside the edufactory as if we and people who do work like us are the only ones who work in this industry, when in reality neither is true.

By emphasizing the differences between our situation and others, we in the edufactory will diminish our power in two ways. On the one hand, we will lose intellectual resources – examples of struggles that can provide lessons for us from other eras and other sectors of the economy. On the other hand, we will lose the support of our fellow employees in the edufactory and elsewhere. I have already stated my discomfort with the implied claims that the edu-factory project represents the interests of workers in The University, when really the network appears to be made up entirely of people who perform labor as or like academics. That does not mean the project is without value, far from it. But it seems to me that one should always pause for a moment whenever one part of a class claims to speak for the whole class, and it also seems to me that this implicit claim to universality is something very, very much a part of what academic workers are trained to do in the edu-factory. That is, it is an attitude which is part and parcel of the ordinary operations of the edu-factory. This brings me to my second point.

In their piece entitled “Precarious Lexicon,” the Precarias a la Deriva wrote that “in jobs with a repetitive content (telemarketing, cleaning, textile workshops), the subjective implication with the task performed is zero and this leads to forms of conflict of pure refusal: generalized absenteeism, dropout-ism, sabotage (….)On the other hand, in jobs where the content is of the vocational/professional type (from nursing to informatics, to social work to research) and, as such, the subjective implication with the task performed is high, conflict is expressed as critique: of the organization of labor, of the logic that articulates it, of the ends toward which it is structured (….) Finally, in those jobs where the content is directly invisibilized and/or stigmatized (the most paradigmatic examples are cleaning work, home care, and sexual work, especially – but not only – street prostitution), conflict manifests as a demand for dignity and the recognition of the social value of what is done.”
(http://www.sindominio.net/karakola/precarias/lexicon.htm) I mention this observation to note again that the edufactory contains more than one sort of work and demands for the autonomous operation of only one sort of work, academic work, will not necessarily speak to or advance the interests of all who do work in the edufactory. I’m not sure that the demand for the autonomous university even represents all academic workers, let alone all workers employed in universities or in education.

The reason I compared the autonomous university to an attempt to create a workers’ run cooperative (or perhaps a federation thereof) is that the initiative strikes me as an attempt to disentangle the labor process in existing academic work from the valorization process. That’s an understandable impulse. Compared to most of the other work I’ve done, I enjoy the substance of my job in university. Reading, writing, discussing – those are enjoyable pursuits. I particularly enjoy teaching and find that rewarding. Even more than enjoying these parts of the job, they form a part of my sense of self in relation to others. As the Precarias put it, my “subjective implication with the task performed is high.” This is not unique to the edufactory, of course, and I suspect that some of the impulse to see the edufactory as central to capitalism today may be the result of our subjective implication with our work in the edufactory. (I can imagine lawyers and doctors and media professionals, for instance, objecting to the claims made about the edufactory lying at the heart of capitalism and arguing for the primacy of a jurisprudence-factory, a hospital-factory, a spectacle-factory.)

My subjective implication with my work in the edufactory connects to what I dislike about my job – the ways in which the power structures on the job interfere with those elements. This is not unique to the edufactory, however. As I said earlier, the majority of the problems I have with my job in the edufactory are the problems involved with having to sell my labor power and having to let others use my labor power during the time I have rented it to them – I have concerns with respect, pay, benefits, the amount of time I spend working and the intensity of my work. These things will exist as long as capitalism exists, but are best challenged by organization at the point of production as I’ve already said. That is, I have problems with having to have a job and the qualities of having a job, like almost anyone else who has a job and very much like others with jobs in which the employees are highly subjectively implicated.

More importantly, however, there is a problematic aspect to the impulse to disentangle the labor process from the valorization process in the edufactory, which is that there seems to be an implied valorization (in the non-marxian sense of the term) of academic labor. That is, there is an implication here along the lines of the dignity of labor. This strikes me as in keeping with a certain ideology by which the edu-factory operates, an injunction for the edufactory worker to value their labor (and thus not to resist the valorization of their labor) because their labor is worth doing, because it is good for society. (In some respects this recapitulates the old traditions of labor republicanism and small-producer socialism, as does the project for an autonomous workers’ co-operative university, a sort of return to the early modern era within what some would call postmodernity.) This is again what the Precarias call subjective implication. To my mind, edufactory workers’ subjective implication in our work is at best ambivalent, being a source of division and class weakness as much as of conflict and powerful organization

Of course, as someone who is subjectively implicated in my work, I don’t have an argument to make against the importance of edufactory work. In fact, part of what keeps me going as an academic worker is precisely my sense that the work is important, along with the other things I find satisfying about it. I’m not sure that that sense is exactly accurate, though, and I’m hesitant about uncritically valorizing it precisely because I think it’s linked to maintaining the valorization process in the edufactory. I think the sense of importance of academic work functions as a sort of conscience wage, a nonmonetary payment in use values such as satisfaction and a sense of superiority. (I have in mind two writers who touch briefly on non-monetary wages: Leopoldina Fortunati in her discussion of love as a payment in exchange for domestic work which goes unpaid in monetary terms and David Roediger in the psychological wage that white people in the United States receive for their role in white supremacy. See Fortunati’s The Arcane of Reproduction and Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness.) I see the sense that academic labor is important (and perhaps unique) as an important part of the impulse to see academic labor as separable from the academic valorization process. This is not an argument against that separation, but a plea for caution and critical engagement with the sensibility. Put simply, the bosses in the edufactory want edufactory workers to think of the edufactory as producing something important. I take it as axiomatic that if we find ourselves doing something at all similar to what the bosses want then we should pause a moment and reflect further.

In closing, I would like to repeat that while I think the autonomous workers’ co-operative university is not the project that I and others with jobs like mine most need, I would welcome that project’s success, and I think it might contribute to the unions (or soviets) which I think are needed. Finally, I repeat my respect for and gratitude to the organizers of the edu-factory list.

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