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The workings of commodified education

Originally published: Socialist Project - The Bullet on February 11, 2022 (more by Socialist Project - The Bullet)

Under the neoliberal accumulation regime, a shift takes place in the internal dynamics of the educational system. Insofar as public education is either privatized or forced to operate along competitive lines through budgetary cuts, not only does the labour power of those who are the products of the education system remain a commodity, but also the knowledge itself that goes into the production of this commodity becomes a commodity. Education becomes, in other words, a process for the production of a commodity (the labour-power of those who receive education) by means of a commodity (the knowledge they receive).

This change has far-reaching consequences for the practice of teaching and learning. In private social relations, producers first enter into contact with one another in a mediated way via the exchange of their products. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels note,

The individuals confront each other only as proprietors of exchange values, as such individuals who have given themselves reified being for each other through their product, the commodity. Without this objective mediation, they have no relation to each other.

Thus, under capitalism, it is not possible to determine, prior to exchange, the amount of private labour that will be socially validated in the form of money. As Marx states, “a priori, no conscious social regulation of production takes place” and the social character of labour “asserts itself only as a blindly operating average.” In other words, private production processes have no structural coordination apart from the one that happens through the medium of money. Hence, capitalism establishes the social connection of private productive processes independently of individual agents, establishing an objective domain of economic activities that dominates the producers themselves. Once this supra-individual determination has taken place, the basic mechanisms of commodity exchange establish an abstract equivalence between qualitatively unequal products, and thereby, present the social relation of value as if it were a natural property of the commodity. These operations have negative consequences for the process of education.

Degrees as Commodities

First, since the teachers have no democratic control over what is being produced, or how it is being produced, the products of their labour become an alien and oppressive power, accruing as the property and wealth of the capitalist owners. The product of pedagogical labour becomes something set apart from life and abstracted into the commodity of “degrees” which can be bought and sold on the educational market. These degrees govern the movement of educational life; the prices of these commodities regularly vary beyond the control of persons. Thus, individuals become totally subordinate to the whims of the marketplace. They relate to one another not directly but through the mediation of degrees, with their livelihoods becoming dependent on the relations established by these commodities. As Marx writes about actors in capitalism,

Their social movement within society has, for them, the form of a movement made by things, and these things, far from being under their control, in fact control them.

Since the human relations underpinning knowledge vanish in their appearance as degrees–and this appearance is necessary as a manifestation of capitalist social relations–education appears to be constituted independently of the experiencing subject. As far as the human subjects are concerned, this leads to the entrenchment of a passive attitude toward the objects. The experienced reality of teachers and students is constituted through a type of perception that consists of a normatively neutralized acceptance of the given objectivity. Georg Lukacs described it in the following way: “Man in capitalist society confronts a reality ‘made’ by himself (as a class) which appears to him to be a natural phenomenon alien to himself; he is wholly at the mercy of its ‘laws’, his activity is confined to the exploitation of the inexorable fulfillment of certain individual laws for his own (egoistic) interests. But even while ‘acting’ he remains, in the nature of the case, the object and not the subject of events.” Thus, the educational subjects never consciously think about changing the ossified reality; they maintain a contemplative attitude, considering objectivity as a collection of brute facts whose exigencies have to be followed.

Secondly, as the relations between educational subjects adopt the form of relations between objects, a specific inversion occurs. Instead of humans being the aim of production, production becomes the aim of humans; instead of new tools and productive methods liberating humans through a people-centered development of the labour process, humans become the slave of tools and the processes of production. These processes correspond to the real subsumption of labour under capital. The Keynesian architecture of public education only formally subsumed the process of education under capital, as the teacher was primarily given the task to create labour-power that is necessary for the functioning and reproduction of the capitalist system. As such, there existed a productive tension between exchange-value (learning for enhancing labour-power) and use-value (learning for politico-ethical development)–the former could only be realized through the latter. Since knowledge itself was not a source of profit-making, it retained subversive strands even as it produced labour-power. All this changed with the emergence of neoliberal policies which embarked on a thorough modification of the labour-process along specifically capitalist lines.

Pedagogical Labour-Process

Now, the entirety of the pedagogical labour-process is converted into a process of extracting surplus-value; there is no node where teachers can exercise relative autonomy in the execution of learning. This is linked to the standardization wrought by commodification. On the one hand, corporate globalization has firmly established British and American higher education standards and practices as the yardstick of education. On the other hand, the use of digital technologies and online education has led to a standardization of courses, with learning platforms uniformly regulating course structures through a predetermined set of resources and tools. These homogenizing tendencies adversely affect the pedagogical liberties of teachers. Christoph Hermann writes,

This means that once developed, the courses can be taught by interchangeable teachers. This, in turn, gives universities the option of expanding the number of adjunct faculty at the expense of tenure-track professors. It is therefore not surprising that profit-oriented online-colleges have a much higher proportion of nontenured faculty than regular nonprofit colleges.

As teachers become increasingly disposable and precarious, their life-affirming role in the pedagogical process decreases. Curry Malott and Derek R. Ford perceptively remark:

[S]tandardized, premade exams and curricula… work to alienate educators from their specialized knowledges, reducing them to minders of the education machine and subsequently limiting their collective leverage… high-stakes standardized exams function as a sort of industrial machine, displacing a certain amount of teachers’ manual and mental labour. The teacher here becomes more and more of an automaton controlled by the curriculum and the process of schooling rather than an educator creating and directing instruction. Capital’s utilization of robotics and computerization has contributed significantly to this tendency, reducing the teacher to an increasingly deskilled or unskilled appendage of the schooling machine… the teacher working at a for-profit privatized charter school [is] expected to follow a scripted curriculum and whose job security rests on her students’ annual standardized test scores.

Since the teachers’ autonomy and critical abilities are robbed through knowledge-machineries such as machine-like standardized exams, curricula, and online learning, a peculiar situation emerges in which the crystallizations of collective human knowledge (machines) objectify the humans themselves. Marx recognized this very clearly:

The social forms of labour appear as forms of the development of capital, and therefore the productive powers of social labour, thus developed, appear as productive powers of capital. As such social forces they are “capitalized” vis-a-vis labour… The social forms of their own labour… confront the workers… as combinations which, unlike their isolated labour capacities, belong to capital, originate from it and are incorporated within it… they confront the workers as powers of capital. They become in fact separated from the skill and knowledge of the individual worker, and although–if we look at them from the point of view of their source–they are in turn the product of labour, they appear as incorporated into capital wherever they enter the labour process.

Third, the fetish-character of knowledge–part of the thing-like and alienated nature of capitalist social reality–is extremely dehumanizing insofar that it extinguishes the creative agency of pedagogy. For educational actors, the powers crystallized in knowledge-machineries exist already objectified in the apparatus of machinery, to whose automatic movement they have to subordinate the free exercise of their human consciousness and will, to the point of becoming its living appendages. This is manifest in the way in which knowledge becomes a self-subsisting entity and an active subject, with the concrete and sensuous humans counting only as the form of manifestation of the abstract-universal knowledge. Capital’s drive for increases in productivity gives rise to the constitution and accumulation of socially general knowledge that is significantly detached from direct human labour-time expenditure and that merely requires them to internalize and transmit this knowledge. What emerges is a form of knowledge that is abstracted from the tissue of life activities; knowledge–far from being embedded in the thickness of social relation–becomes an abstract system, an autonomous point of reference to which activities have to conform with precision. Avijit Pathak powerfully expresses the effects of such a system:

Our education puts excessive importance to information and knowledge, or the power of memory and reasoning… its highest goal is the cultivation of the intellect or the mind. It is one-dimensional because it undermines many other faculties of seeing, feeling, experiencing, knowing and doing… It is through poetic sensitivity that we find a meaning in the world… However, these faculties are devalued in the name of the intellect or the power of abstract reason. We exercise our minds, we apply the faculty of reason, we read books, we write scholarly papers, and we produce knowledge. But then, in the entire exercise we miss the spirit of life. We erect the walls of separation: brain from heart, reason from intuition, fact from value, science from poetry, mental from manual, and theory from practice. In other words, with the prevalent practice of education, we become more and more fragmented, divided and hence, soulless.

Fourth, the establishment of money as the universal method of objective mediation in the sphere of knowledge turns the social practice of pedagogy into a narrowly instrumentalist calculus of costs and benefits. Riccardo Bellofiore comments that “[c]ommodities are not made commensurable by money because they are already commensurable in advance, as gelatin of human living labour in the abstract”; the commensurability of “these objectifications of living labour” lies in their status as “‘ideal’ money-magnitudes anticipated by agents… Value before exchange is already ideal money with a given (notional) labour-content: it is a determined amount of contained labour. This ‘substance’ is actualized in circulation when ‘ideal’ money turns into real money.” As is evident, the commodification of knowledge entails that educational subjects perceive their activities predominantly in terms of market-oriented exchange. As a result, those who impart and receive knowledge look upon it not as a source of humanization and emancipation, but rather, exclusively in terms of the amount of money it can help them to command in the market. In the words of Prabhat Patnaik, “the commoditization of the product of education… requires… that the thing called education should be completely detached from notions of joy of learning and excitement of ideas, and should be seen by its sellers… and… the buyers… exclusively as exchange value (just as for the steel producer the pig iron used as input is not a source of joy but only a value-sum that is transferred to the value of steel).”

Since the magnitude of abstract labour cannot be measured before monetary exchange, that which can be measured by a clock is always just individual private labour. However, this fact is not visible to individuals in their everyday lives. Marx argues that “the incorporation of labour into capital,” along with the object and instruments of production, means that “the process of production of capital is not distinct from the material process of production in general. Its determinateness of form is completely extinguished.” The outcome is that the material process of production in its immediacy appears as “the self-moving content of capital.” Christopher J. Arthur explains:

Value-in-process is carried by the labour-process; but it is not labour as abstract that ‘produces’ value; rather labour is abstracted from when socially signified as pure motion in time. Yet, when the unity established in capital’s time is reflected onto the labour-process as if that were its ground, it appears as if the material labour underpinning value positing is labour in the abstract, i.e., hypostatized as such. But this is an ideal imputation; and because value can only be generated along with the commodity that bears this social imputation it is easy to conflate the ideal social process with the material production-process.

In the case of education, the ideal imputation of abstract labour to pedagogy makes it seem that pedagogical labour is immediately productive of value, as if value (degrees) is a natural product of labour. What is forgotten is the fundamental fact that degrees represent not simply a natural-physical relationship between the individual labour of the producer and the product, but rather a social relationship between the individual labour of producers and the total labour of society. Educational actors fail to see the historical character of capitalist market: unlike previous modes of production which inserted persons into direct relationships of production and exchange (frequently based on their control over the means of production), the market interjects itself between people, shaping the consciousness of social relations through the abstract laws of commodities.

Fifth, the reduction of concrete labour to abstract labour–expressed in the translation of all the varied qualities that constitute products into the common language of price and money–is deeply real and practical. Istvan Meszaros specifies that it is built upon a “practical framework of ubiquitous formal equivalences into which the suitably reduced particular individuals themselves are inserted, as commodities or exchange-values of a kind. A framework which accomplishes the “homogenization” and abstract “equalization” of the greatest diversity, including the commodification of human labour, desires, aspirations, etc.” This framework is reflected in the economic compulsion to secure one’s livelihood by meeting externally imposed quantitative targets. Education, thus, becomes an activity of abstract labour, performed not primarily for its specific content–liberatory teaching and learning–but for its ability to be exchanged for a wage. When the world is understood through the lens of abstract labour, one becomes indifferent to the content of the productive act itself, and solely concerned with for how much one is able to exchange the results of production.

Lukacs said that capitalism “makes work independent of the… qualitatively determinable… capacities of the workers and places it under objective, goal-oriented criteria that lie outside his personality and have no relationship to it. The major economic tendency of capitalism is this same objectification of production, its separation from the personality of the producers. By means of the capitalist economy, an objective abstraction–capital–becomes the real producer even though it hardly stands in an organic connection to the personality of those who happen to own it.” In other words, human activity is objectified; it is transformed into an accurately measured commodity that must be homogenized through the isolation of the worker’s peculiarities as irrational as well as non-calculable factors which can disturb the smooth functioning of the process of production.

This process of separating a specific ability from the whole personality, abstracting its qualities and rationalizing it through measuring and quantitatively expressing it results in what Lukacs called a “perfectly closed system.” In this system, abstract labour “transform[s] the basic categories of man’s immediate attitude to the world: it reduces space and time to a common denominator and degrades time to the dimension of space… Thus time sheds its qualitative, variable, flowing nature; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable ‘things’ (the reified, mechanically objectified ‘performance’ of the worker, wholly separated from his total human personality): in short, it becomes space.”

The transformation of matters of quality into determinations of quantity–encapsulated in the mathematical formula that stresses maximum output with minimum input–causes a fundamental disconnect between form and content. Capitalist society blindly imposes the commodity-form on human content, regardless of whether it fosters human development or results in brutalization and degradation. Thus, neoliberal education creates an abstract arrangement of profit-making wherein both students and teachers are mere quantitative units, brought together in a hierarchical relation for the valorization of capital. Pathak describes the type of subjectivities this abstract logic engenders:

Educators have been replaced by techno-managers. And they dislike subjectivity, human emotions and qualitative experiences. And hence, everything has to be measured, quantified and documented as a necessary ‘data’ for selling the product. A student, in the eyes of a techno-manager, is nothing but her attendance record or the grade she gets in the exam. Likewise, a teacher is primarily her CV: the list of publications, the lectures delivered, the seminars attended, or the identifiable utility of the courses offered. What is immeasurable is beyond their grasp as the fetish of ‘ranking’ is about the instrumental presentation and manipulation of this ‘data’.

While the dominance of the culture of lifeless abstractions seems overwhelming, openings for resistance and revolution continue to exist. The possibility of change derives from the fact that form and content are not identical. From the standpoint of the content, the form repeatedly appears as irrational. When talking about the lengthening of the working day, Lukacs wrote, “The quantitative differences in exploitation which appear to the capitalist in the form of quantitative determinants of the objects of his calculation, must appear to the worker as the decisive, qualitative categories of his whole physical, mental and moral existence.” Hence, the content can overflow the form of capitalism and has the power to overthrow it. Our hope for a better future lies in fighting for such a radical change.