Student-as-worker is no petty-bourgeois infantilism

Pothik Ghosh

1. Is one being ignorant of the history of university if one calls on students to politically organise themselves as workers in order to burn down the university-factory?

Of course, we all know the Enlightenment as a project of self-legislation is a dialectic between the practical-materialist subjectivity of struggle (the overcoming of historical determination in its own moment) and the contemplative-‘materialist’ human subject (or the self). What that means is the latter (the human subject as the Enlightenment) is an interruption of the former (the practical-materialist subjectivity of struggle as enlightenment) because of the reification of the limit that gets imposed on the subjectivity of struggle on account of its determinateness. In such circumstances, the only way to ensure the line does not shift to render this dialectic of enlightenment symmetrical and idealist, so that it sustains itself as an asymmetrical and materialist dialectic, is to brush the Enlightenment against its grain.

Now, in that context, if we were to historicise the modern university, and thereby grasp it as an embodiment of the Enlightenment as a credo of self-legislation, we would grasp the university as an embodiment of the dialectic of enlightenment. That would mean grasping the institutionality of the university as precisely the interruption of the practical-materialist subjectivity of struggle, which in being interrupted thus, due to the fetishisation of the limit imposed on it by its historically particular condition of determinateness, yielded the institutionality of the university. Seen in this fashion, the history of modern university as an embodiment of enlightenment is not a history of merely the university as institutionality, but the actuality of the asymmetrical dialectic between the practical-materialist subjectivity of struggle and the institutionality of the university, which is an interruption and hypostasis of that struggle.

In such circumstances, the modern university – from the vantage-point of critique of political economy, and a militant subjectivity underpinned by the mode of such critique – is a cell-form of capital in being an internally divided terrain of antagonism between the instrumentalising institutionality of the university, and the subjectivity of practical materialism that militates against the former from within it. But that is not all. The practical-materialist subjectivity, in militating against the institutionality of the university from within it, and thereby being constitutive of the modern university as an internally divided terrain, must also envisage itself as a determinate moment of actuality of the strategy of uninterrupted unraveling of capital as a moving contradiction. It is this kind of awareness of the history of university that arguably informs and marks the call to burn down the university-factory. That this is a call for determinate negation of capital is properly clarified when one asks students, as part of such a call, to engage in struggles within the university in a manner that the ground is set for the destruction of the interlinked and interdependent oppressions of which the university-factory is only one manifestation.

2. Does calling on students to politically organise themselves as workers serve to bolster the petty-bourgeois consciousness among students? Does such a call amount to a substitutionist move of making students into workers, thus not requiring them to actually organise in the working class?

In fact, just the opposite is the case. Calling on students to frame their politics in terms of their objective social condition of being workers, is to emphasise the situation of students within the overall socio-technical division of labour so that students envisage their oppositional politics, with regard to the specificity of their terrain, primarily in terms of a struggle against the overall segmentation of the working class. For, it is precisely in the segmentation of the working class (manifest in, as and through the overall socio-technical division or composition of labour), and the relations of exchange among many of those segments, that capital as the logic of value-relations is respectively operationalised and realised.

Here we would do well to dwell on two interrelated conceptual problems of what constitutes the objectivity from which the revolutionary subjectivity of the working class can stem. Many tend to argue, pace Marx, that the working-class leadership of a proletarian-revolutionary transformation of capitalist society can, and must, only come from those segments and sections of social labour that are productive – that is, those segments and sections of social labour that create value, and from which surplus value is concomitantly extracted to be realised as profit. It is in this context that we ought to pose the two interrelated conceptual problems more specifically. One, is academic work, in an overall sense, productive? And two, is the particular activity performed by students – (whether in classrooms or as research scholars), in the process of participating in this academic work, productive too?

In order to address these two interrelated problems somewhat adequately, we would do well to begin with Marx’s conceptions of productive and unproductive labour. While critically engaging with Adam Smith’s conceptions of the same in Theories of Surplus Value, Part I, Marx writes: “Only labour which produces capital is productive labour. Commodities or money become capital, however, through being exchanged directly for labour-power, and exchanged only in order to be replaced by more labour than they themselves contain. For the use-value of labour-power to the capitalist as a capitalist does not consist in its actual use-value, in the usefulness of this particular concrete labour – that it is spinning labour, weaving labour, and so on. He is as little concerned with this as with the use-value of the product of this labour as such, since for the capitalist the product is a commodity (even before its first metamorphosis), not an article of consumption. What interests him in the commodity is that it has more exchange-value than he paid for it; and therefore the use-value of the labour is, for him, that he gets back a greater quantity of labour-time than he has paid out in the form of wages.”

Marx then goes on to further explicate his conceptions of productive and unproductive labour through his continued critical assimilation of Smith: “…this distinction between productive and unproductive labour has nothing to do either with the particular specialty of the labour or with the particular use-value in which this special labour is incorporated. In the one case, the labour is exchanged with capital, in the other with revenue. In the one case the labour is transformed into capital, and creates a profit for the capitalist; in the other case it is an expenditure, one of the articles in which revenue is consumed.”

With this Marxian distinction between productive and unproductive labour in mind let us now approach the problem of academic activity that goes on in institutions of post-secondary and higher education, and try and work out the character of the labour at stake in such activity.

The network of academic institutions – especially, at the post-secondary level – is constitutive of mutual competition among its constituent institutions in the market of academic training so that the demand for some outstrips the demand for others. This demand is basically of students-as-consumers for the commodity of academic knowledge, which they need to (re)produce their labour-power and/or enhance its particular mode of expenditure vis-à-vis the productive labour market. And this competition among academic institutions – particularly, in the sphere of higher education – is determined by the so-called quality of teaching and/or research services provided by those institutions relative to one another. Such quality is, therefore, determined by measuring the average degree of success of their pass-outsin the market for productive labour. In such circumstances, the criteria of evaluation of academic institutions in play are those of so-called quality of teaching, and other allied services that academic institutions (or shops) provide the student-as-consumer. This, first and foremost, depends on the quality of the academic staff and facilities that such an institution is able to provide its student-consumer. And the ascertainable measure of such quality is the number of patents producedand/or research papers published in prestigious academic journals by the faculty and research scholars of a particular institution. The so-called prestige of such patents, and research papers and other publications, is nothing but a euphemism for capitalist productivity.

And this productivity, as far as the production of such research work is concerned, is on two counts. First; a particular academic research product directly feeds into other branches of commodity-producing industry to enhance capital accumulation by increasing the extraction of (relative) surplus-value in those industrial branches. Or, second; products of particular kinds of academic research that, unlike in the first instance, do not feed directly into other branches of commodity-producing industry and are yet commodities measurable in terms of their productivity because their use-value components satisfy some or the other social want that, in this particular case, springs, pace Marx of Capital, Volume I, “from fancy”. A good example of the latter would be certain sorts of academic knowledge in the disciplines of humanities and other social sciences. Such academic commodities satisfy intellectual needs – social wants that spring from the mind – of its consumers but in doing that they socially reproduce those consumers as repositories of labour-power.

Such social (re)production of labour-power is not just about the (re)production of labour-power in its bare form, but also involves developing it through its (re)production so that it can be expended in modes other than that in which it is already expended so that its value expressed in price is enhanced. This, needless to say, renders the individuals embodying such (re)produced labour-power more competitive and thus more upwardly mobile in the overall socio-technical division, or composition, of labour. And the more such academic commodities – which do not feed directly into other branches of commodity-producing industry to enhance their productivity – are able to enhance the productivity of labour-power while reproducing it, the more productive they themselves are.

Marx quite clearly indicates that the work of teachers – which is an integral part of what we are here calling academic work – consists of the performing of productive labour because it participates in the (re)production of the vendible commodity of labour-power. He writes in Theories of Surplus Value, Part I: “The whole world of “commodities” can be divided into two great parts. First, labour-power, second, commodities as distinct from labour-power itself. As to the purchase of such services as those which train labour-power, maintain or modify it, etc., in a word, give it a specialised form or even only maintain it – thus for example the schoolmaster’s service, in so far as it is ‘industrially necessary’ or useful; the doctor’s service, in so far as he maintains health and so conserves the source of all values, labour-power itself – these are services which yield in return ‘a vendible commodity…’, namely labour-power itself, into whose costs of production or reproduction these services enter.”

So, insofar as the market of academic commodities is concerned, the productivity of academic research production on the two counts described above are both equally important. The first is important because by being directly productive (or not) with regard to other commodity markets it fetches more revenue (or not), and thus more profit (or not), from the industries of those other commodity-markets by exchanging academic research commodities (mostly intangible scientific and technical, and/or administrative and management know-how) for revenue in monetary terms. Consequently, the academic factories that produce such productive (or not) intangible research commodities for other industries are also productive (or not) on the second count with regard to the market for productive labour-power. That is because the more productive its research commodity is for other branches of commodity-producing industry, the more is the demand likely to be for such an academic factory among students-as-consumers looking to develop their labour-power in the process of reproducing it by consuming the commodity of academic knowledge produced there. That is because an academic institution, when it produces the intangible commodity of know-how for other branches of commodity-producing industry, does so only in the process of producing the commodity of academic knowledge for its student-consumers to consume it in order to socially reproduce themselves as repositories of productive labour-power. What this, therefore, means is that the production of the intangible commodity of know-how in academic institutions enhances the productivity of the labour-power of its students-consumers while socially reproducing them as the repositories of such labour-power.

As for the second type, its productivity as a commodity (or the lack of it thereof) is ascertainable directly in terms of the productivity of labour-power its consumption produces. Therefore, if one were to deal with the market of academic commodities strictly with regard to it satisfying the social wants of students-as-consumers, one ought to ascertain the productivity of such commodities in terms of the productivity of labour-power that is (re)produced in and through their consumption. For, the more productive the labour-power (re)produced in and through the consumption of the commodities of academic knowledge, the more shall be the demand among student-consumers for the academic institutions (read factories) that produce such commodities. Therefore, those academic institutions or factories that are, on this count, more in demand will fetch relatively more revenue and thus more profit, than those that are not. But such demand, as we have seen, is a direct function of academic productivity (in terms of both the quantity and quality of research produced, and the quality of teaching imparted). And this, in turn, implies increased extraction of surplus labour time by academic institutions from academic workers engaged in the production of academic knowledge (and/or the production of the academic commodity of know-how for other branches of the modern industry) – principally through intensification of academic work (relative extraction of surplus labour time), but also through an increase in the total labour time expended in such academic production.

Clearly, the profit earned by an academic shop by exchanging the commodity of academic knowledge it produces for a certain proportion of the revenue of the consuming public – even if one were to leave aside the profit it earns (or not) by exchanging the academic commodity of intangible know-how with other branches of modern industry for a part of the latter’s constant capital – is realisation of the surplus value (surplus labour time) extracted from its academic workers during the production of academic knowledge. That is so because the proportion of the revenue of the consuming public this academic factory is able to claim as its earning is a function of its demand among that public. And this demand is, in turn, a function of the productivity of its academic workers in the production of the commodity of academic knowledge. Clearly, academic institutions are not just shops in the academic market but are, before all else, factories in the academic industry. In fact, they are shops precisely because they are factories.

But can academic knowledge, strictly speaking, be considered a commodity? We would do well here to attend to what Marx has to say in Theories of Surplus Value, Part I: “…a part of the services in the strict sense which assume no objective form – which do not receive an existence as things separate from those performing the services, do not enter into a commodity as a component part of its value – may be bought with capital (by the immediate purchaser of the labour), may replace their own wages and yield a profit for him. In short, the production of these services can be in part subsumed under capital, just as a part of the labour which embodies itself in useful things in bought directly by revenue and is not subsumed under capitalist production.”

Therefore, academic work – to say nothing of the various kinds of non-academic work – occurring in institutions of post-secondary and higher education is productive and so is the labour employed in it. Clearly, members of the teaching faculty – fulfilling their function as classroom instructors and/or supervisors of academic research programmes – in every such academic institution (or factory) are academic workers whose labour is productive. And what Marx says in Theories of Surplus Value, Part I, with regard to a writer being a productive labourer would equally apply to an academic worker: “A writer is a productive labourer not in so far as he produces ideas, but in so far as he enriches the publisher who publishes his works, or if he is a wage-labourer for a capitalist.” All we need to do here is substitute the writer-publisher relationship with the relationship between the academic worker and the university or college he/she works for.

The question that stems from this, however, is the following: are students, who are an integral part of the activity that produces commodities of academic knowledge and/or know-how for other branches of modern industry, and which involves the performing of productive labour by teachers, also to be counted as productive academic workers? There is absolutely no doubt the activity of students – whether as pupils in the classroom or as research-scholars pursuing their doctoral degrees – is work. What a student does in participating as a student in the academic activity of teaching and research is work because such activity, first and foremost, is consumption-as-production, or, “consumptive production”, as Marx terms it in the ‘Introduction’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that is part of the appendices to the text in question. The activity a student engages in, in the process of consuming academic knowledge, is work because this activity of consumption is integral to his/her social reproduction and thus the (re)production of the vendible commodity of labour-power, which resides in him/her, for the market of productive labour. And insofar as it is an activity that produces not just use-value for the immediate satisfaction of the student’s social want of knowledge that springs from his/her mind, but produces the vendible commodity of labour-power, such activity, following the portions of Marx’s Theories of Surplus Value, Part I, cited above, amounts to the performing of productive labour.

Of course, large masses of educated unemployed in our modern society show that not every individual who undergoes this period of studentship is able to successfully vend his/her commodity of labour-power in the productive-labour market. One could, as a result, infer the activity of consuming academic knowledge during studentship is not performing of productive labour for most as they will end up as educated unemployed or underemployed and their labour-power will not, in such circumstances, be productively employed. Such an inference would, however, be erroneous. The labour performed by productively unemployed labour-power to reproduce itself as that unemployed labour-power is only apparently unproductive and is systemically and thus essentially productive. That is so because the unemployed and the underemployed in reproducing themselves as the “relative surplus- population” or the “industrial reserve army” (Marx, in Capital, Volume I) work to regiment the productively employed labour-power and increase the latter’s productivity, thereby leading to a concomitant increase in the extraction of surplus value and capital accumulation. This is what renders the apparently unproductive labour of the unemployed and underemployed reproducing themselves essentially and systemically productive.

For that, however, we must grasp the labour that is unproductive in an immediate sense in terms of how that unproductive functionality is productively articulated by the structured totality of social labour within which it is constitutively situated. That is precisely what Marx does while explicating his concept of the “industrial reserve army” in Capital, Volume I. He writes: “If the means of production, as they increase in extent and effective power, become to a less extent means of employment of labourers, this state of things is again modified by the fact that in proportion as the productiveness of labour increases, capital increases its supply of labour more quickly than its demand for labourers. The over-work of the employed part of the working-class swells the ranks of the reserve, whilst conversely the greater pressure that the latter by its competition exerts on the former, forces these to submit to over-work and to subjugation under the dictates of capital. The condemnation of one part of the working-class to enforced idleness by the over-work of the other part, and the converse, becomes a means of enriching the individual capitalists, and accelerates at the same time the production of the industrial reserve army on a scale corresponding with the advance of social accumulation.”

Let us, however, set aside the issue of (re)production of labour-power as productive labour and try and see how the participation of students in academic activity is, even in its immediate specificity, work; and performing of productive labour to boot. In his/her activity of consuming the commodity of academic knowledge – whether as a pupil in the classroom, or as a researcher pursuing his/her doctoral degree – a student interacts with the teacher. And what he/she does as a student as part of such interaction is, even in its immediate sense, work. It is work because his/her activity of consuming the commodity of academic knowledge is for the teacher, with whom he/she interacts in the process, a use-value. The student’s activity of consuming the commodity of academic knowledge in interaction with his/her teacher is a use-value for the latter because such activity of the student is, in turn, immediately consumed by the teacher in question to socially reproduce himself/herself as the individual teacher he/she is. That, following Marx, is capital as the dialectic of “consumptive production” and “productive consumption” in its bare abstraction.

But that is not all. The commodity of academic knowledge – whose productivity underpins the level of demand for the academic factory that produces it among its potential student-consumers and which, therefore, enables it to earn more revenue and thus profit than its other competitors in the academic market – is produced in the process of such teacher-student interaction. The same also holds true for the academic production of the commodity of know-how for other branches of modern industry, as and when it happens. Thus, whether or not the contribution made by the activity of research students in their interaction with their teacher-supervisors to the production of those academic commodities is openly acknowledged, militants committed to radical working-class politics cannot afford to overlook their indispensable productive role in the production of those commodities. That is something clearly there for all to see, provided they are willing to make the effort to look through, and beyond, the ideological smokescreen created by the valorisation of individuated claims to academic research products. The productive labour of students in academic work is, however, not merely restricted to research scholars pursuing doctoral degrees. Even students, in and through their interaction with teachers as classroom pupils enable teachers not only to expand their pedagogic horizons as classroom instructors but also often push their overall academic thinking that may then enhance the productivity of their contribution to research productions. Does that then not render the labour of consumptive production performed by students, even in classrooms, doubly productive?

Hence, teachers alone are not academic workers performing productive labour in various academic factories, just because they are formally waged. Even students, in their unwaged – and, worse, fee-paying – condition perform productive labour by way of their participation in what goes on under the name of academic activity. In such circumstances, the hierarchy of the teacher-student relationship in those institutions is nothing but the differential relationship between two segments of social labour in the academic factory. This hierarchical relationship between students and teachers is, in other words, the instantiation of the overall capitalist sociality of socio-technical division of labour in the specific realm of academic production.

Therefore, calling on students to frame their politics in terms of their objective condition of being workers – which is to call on students to grasp the specificity of their social existence as students in terms of a moment in the operation of the chain of social labour (or what Marx described as “collective worker”) – is to imply that the correct strategic logic of radical antagonism vis-à-vis capital is as much about struggles against segmentation within the unity of the working class as it’s about the unity of diverse segments of the working class in its struggle against the institutional congealments of capitalist class power that apparently lie outside the class in its unity. More pertinently, calling on students to base their particular politics on the worker-condition of their social being is to clearly imply that different segments of the working class can come together to actually emerge as an antagonistic working-class subjectivity only through a process of struggle in unity against the segmentations that lie at the heart of this phenomenon of working-class unity.

Therefore, to call on students to politically organise themselves as workers is to call on them to envisage their terrain-specific struggles in a way that those struggles begin constellating with the specific struggles of other (identitarianised) segments of the working class – segments that are systemically identified as various types and kinds of workers that in their situation within the system stand differentiated from the identity of students as a community. [Given our neoliberal conjuncture, wherein the division between the cognitive and the manual (or the immaterial and the material) stands heavily precarised at different levels of its segmental operations, calling on students to base their politics on their objective condition of being workers is especially crucial.]

And if this call is not an instance of requiring students to actually organise in the working class, then one doesn’t know what else is? For, if this is not what is meant by students organising themselves in the working class, then the only other way one can think of is for students to seek and strive to go to the working class, as if it is something that lies outside them, in order to organise it. Now that, as far as one can see, would not be a case of students organising themselves in the working class but one of students organising the working class after coming to it from some absolute outside or Archimedean point. It is, therefore, the latter, not the former, that amounts to the deployment of the strategic conception of the vanguard in a classical substitutionist manner.

Of course, the constellating mode of having students organise in the working class would, without doubt, require the formation of a militant subjectivity that seeks to intervene in an embodied form in the objective terrains of labour-capital conflict not necessarily organic to the specificity of the concrete situation of its own embodied formation. That said, such embodied militant subjectivity – while making its radicalising interventions in objective terrains of labour-capital conflict different from the one where it was formed – must always reflexively demonstrate in its practice the organic specificity of its own formation as an embodied militant subjectivity.

In other words, the embodied militant subjectivity should inhabit the working class in the diversity of its segmental struggles while demonstrating to those respective class segments the limit imposed on the capital-unravelling impulse of their struggles by the historical particularities of their determinate condition so that those different segments of the class constellate their respective struggles/self-activities with one another and emerge, through such self-organising, into a subject and force of radical working-class politics. Now, is that not a modality of thinking and envisioning the militant subjectivity that is fundamentally distinct from the classical substitutionist modality in which it is usually envisaged? For, is not the substitutionist modality of envisaging the militant subjectivity all about aggregatively bringing together different segments of the working class into an organisation that is already given as a form – which is nothing but the embodiment of the so-called militant subjectivity? Is not substitutionism all about having this embodied form of subjectivity of the working class act on behalf of the class while the class itself supposedly legitimises this operation of its embodied subjectivity by passively following it?

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