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Capitalist mediation and the productive academic labour

The ability to differentiate between productive/unproductive labour lies at the foundation of a well-functioning capitalist economy in any sphere (higher education included). Moreover, the distinction seems crucial from the perspective of its potential collapse, mainly, as productivity has been seen as a key to ground the unity of the subjects struggling against the capitalist subsumption. This conceptual pair has been a topic of long discussion within both, Marxism and the Marxist reflection on higher education. A recent article, “Academic Labor and its Exploitation” by David Bates aims to contribute to this debate and I want to discuss it as part of the wider blog project on Marxist higher education research. It needs to be mentioned, that Bates address this issue in a slightly non-direct way. His main aim is to conceptualize exploitation, but he assumes that the stake of such theoretical endeavour is to first prove that academic labour is productive, as this is a requirement for speaking about exploitation if one is working within the Marxist theoretical frameworks.

Marx on productive labour

Let’s start with Marx. His reflection on productive/unproductive labour in capitalism starts together with his general interest in political economy and takes an already elaborated form in Grundrisse where it takes the openly antagonistic form (productive labour as labour producing its opposite – capital). However, most of the interesting passages are spread in his economic manuscripts from the 1860s, especially the volumes of Theories of Surplus Value or Results of the Direct Production Process. While Marx borrows the distinction and big part of its accompanying assumptions from Adam Smith, he adds a specific flavour to it that cannot be ignored. First, while for the most part analyses what does it mean to be productive of value (that is under the rule of capital), in a few moments he historizes or ontologises productive labour asking what does it mean to be “truly productive” (productive of wealth). Like with the categorial pair of wealth (transhistorical essence) and value (historical form), he discerns productivity (a transhistorical category of producing a surplus in metabolic relation with nature) and productivity from the perspective of capital (a historical category, that bothers Smith – that is, what type of labour produce value that turns into capital). There are also moments in his oeuvre where mentions of productiveness in communist society are to be found. This allows him to pose the distinction in more political terms, as a category of struggle. And this is the second specificity of Marx’s approach to the pair productive/unproductive labour. If there is a concrete ontological fundament for conceptualizing productiveness, one that allows for understanding the capitalist productiveness as a historically transient form, as well as to think of the form that productiveness may take in the alternative setting, there is a space for a political reading of productive/unproductive pair. While capital expands as to turn all activities (no matter of their form – being material or immaterial, or whatever) into labour productive of value that serves its ongoing self-valorisation, on the other end we can think of the social forces that push not just in the opposite direction, but even somewhere completely else. That’s for the Marxian approach.

Productive and unproductive academic labour

What then is the problem with the productive or unproductive character of academic labour? Taking the approaches that question the very possibility of capitalist relations functioning within the public higher education sector (a strange position, yet they exist) aside for a brief moment, the problem is at least threefold. First, depending on our interpretative decision concerning this conceptual pair we can address the exploitation of academic labour. A wide spectrum of positions and problems are arising here. Starting from the anachronic “controversy” around the productive character of immaterial labour, through problems of whether the wage labour in the public sector could be considered productive at all, to the form and the character of the relation that capital establishes with academic labour. Second, there is a problem of the focus – depending on the author’s choice, a different aspect of the complexity of academic labour is discussed. While in the earlier reflection Third, the problem of politics. Addressing the productive character of labour performed at the universities allows not only for mobilization of academic labourers against the dominant forms of capitalist exploitation in the field but moreover, their possible inclusion into the coalition of struggle that traverses all the sectors of the economy and may put an end to the rule of capital. There are also more nuanced issues at stake but these three form the most general stakes in the ongoing debates. 

Exploitation of academic labour

Enter David Bates. While he does not share explicitly my methodological understanding of how Marx’s addresses the issue of productive/unproductive labour, Bates nonetheless aims to cover the problem in all three above-mentioned respects. He locates the issue of exploitation of academic labour in the spot of his article. Further, he uses the insights produced to approach the internal differentiation of the academic labour, mainly criticizing the use of the term “precariat” to address the factions of academic labour employed on temporary or zero-hours contracts. The article divides into the discussion of the two main themes that are loosely connected. In this post, I will focus on the way how Bates conceptualize exploitation – and I will leave the precariat debate aside. 

Bates comes up with the three positions on capitalist exploitation of labour in general. Two “classical” and his own. Position A, ascribed to Gough, Meiksins or Meiksins-Wood, addresses the exploitation in the broad sense, emphasizing not just surplus value creation but the importance of surplus labour for understanding the issue of exploitation. Position B, shared by Poulantzas, Mandel assumes that exploitation occurs where the surplus value is produced. Yet these Marxist intellectuals considered productive only labour involved in the production of material commodities. Bates rightly complains at this form of fetishization of materiality, which he finds a sign of the epoch – the crisis of the labour movement in the West and the relocation of material production to the Global South-East.

While it is understandable that there is a tendency to select theoretical opponents that due to the simplicity of their arguments help establish one’s position, the fact that the selection here is so limited is striking. Whereas Bates refers to post-operaist takes on the productive character of affective labour further in his argument, he seems to ignore their more general contribution to this debate, like the discussion on real subsumption and takes by Negri and Vercellone, or some earlier contributions on the social factory. But here the list of omissions by Bates does not end. Even more strikingly he ignores the New Reading of Marx (NRM) tendency that is increasingly popular in the anglophone debates on academic labour, and that came up with an elegant solution to the theoretical problem of assessing the productive character of labour in capitalism seeing it within the decisive sphere of exchange. In other words, NRM suggests that controversy over productive/unproductive labour and its character is based on substantialist vision of value and the role of labour in producing it, while in fact, whatever sells on the market in the commodity form proves retroactively that labour that contributed to its production was in fact productive. These are just two highly popular Marxist modes of reasoning on the issue of productive/unproductive labour and therefore the problem of exploitation of non-industrial, intellectual labour in the new phase of capitalist development. 

Mediated exploitation and mediated value

Finally, comes Position C: “The more convincing position to me would seem to be one which insists that surplus value creation is central to the category of exploitation […] and that the materiality of commodities is not a necessary condition of value creation” (1095). A true Aristotelian golden mean. But jokes aside. This is the moment where, no matter the simplistic terms used, the core of the problem with the Marxist approach to academic labour is revealed. Here also lies “the lacuna” which Bates aims to fill up. His contribution consists of “a key conceptual expansion of the Marxist notion of exploitation by developing a category of mediated exploitation – that is, the claim that capitalism can exploit labor which is not part of the immediate capitalist labor process, labor which is nevertheless key to the totality of capitalist valorization.” (2021: 1091)

Taking into account existing Marxist contributions aiming at the conceptualisation of surplus extraction from various types of “immaterial labour” this proposal seems belated. As I already mentioned. On the one side, we have Italian workerist Marxism that reflected upon the biopolitical turn of production and through ontologisation of real subsumption claimed that capital aims at turning the whole society (and the living) into a site of its valorisation. On the other side, there are NRM inspired readings that focus on the expansion of capitalist abstraction and emphasize the role of the sphere of exchange that makes the issue of materiality or immateriality, state-owned or private production irrelevant.

In this context, Bates proposal is simplistic, yet it touches upon an important problem as he develops his concept of “mediated value” which “can be regarded as value resulting from labor carried out in the non-capitalist sphere that is only transformed into value at the point it enters the immediate capitalist labor process” […] “Value creation in universities may be direct, as well as mediated” (1097). In the context of some Marxist contributions to the debate on academic labour that focuses on the direct value production and stuck, Bates approach seems refreshing.

Further in the article, he deepens his understanding of how the value extraction goes on and what consequences this established mediation has for the increase of control and acceleration of exploitation in the public universities: “if we take seriously the claim that value can be produced in a mediated fashion—that, labor’s value-creating capacity can flow from the revenue-funded educational sphere to the sphere of private capital — then it would seem possible to argue that capitalists have an (in)direct “interest” in ensuring that the exploitation of educational workers is maximized. The greater the amount of surplus-labor that is carried out in the educational sphere, the more the capitalist gets in return for her/his tax investment. And the greater the amount of surplus labor that is transferred to the private sector, the greater the amount of value that is created through its transformation.” (1099)

The logic presented in this fragment seems a bit too “unorthodox”, even to me. Some abstract mediated relation and the returns from tax investments done by capitalists as the stimulus for labour acceleration. What this fragment aims to point at is rather the problem of ideal subsumption of labour under capital, rather than some sort of an artificial distance relation. As Marx indicated in a few passages of Results of the Direct Production Process, ideal subsumption is a form of organisation of non-capitalist production as if it was resembling capitalist production. It is a purely ideological form of subsuming labour, in this respect, labour done in the public higher education, to the capital valorisation imperatives. 


Finally, what deserves attention is the argumentative line that Bates uses to strengthen his case and the grounds for the need to introduce the capitalist mediation – “mediated value” – as a concept to grasp the extraction of value at a distance. As he writes: “First, without this category, the Marxist theory of exploitation can have nothing to say about the reality of how capitalism can extend exploitation beyond what we may term the immediate capitalist labor process. Valorization does not only occur in the factory. Second, the category of mediated value can enable us to point not only to the antagonisms, but also to the possibility of a solidarity of “interests” between workers in the state and private capitalist spheres, and other forms of non-capitalist labor—say, reproductive labor—that is also value-creating. Third, and most importantly for the concerns of this paper, without this category I would argue that we are blind to key aspects of the form that the exploitation of academic labor takes today.” (1099)

As for the validity of theoretical claims and contribution made by Bates I must disagree with his first point, agree with the second, and say that the third point he mentions is at best ambiguous. Let me briefly explain.

  1. True. Valorisation does not occur in the factory. Yet we know that, if not from Marx himself, then at least from the Italian reflection on the social factory from the 1960s and many other Marxist contributions. Therefore, we probably have very little need for a “new category”.
  2. In his political intuition, Bates is right. The stake of the analysis of the capitalist mediation and the reflection on the productiveness of academic labour is a potential for expanding the solidarity across the sectors of capitalist society and economy and making the “working class” more inclusive. I applaud every contribution to the debate on the capitalist transformation of higher education that addresses this point.
  3. If I agree that rethinking the forms of capitalist mediation is needed, various contributions have done this already and we are not blind, as Bates would like to see us, to all these forms of exploitation. 

To end on a more positive note. What I like about Bates’ proposal is that it points at the need to develop an appropriate conceptualisation of the mediated relationship between academic labour and capital, as well as urge us to deepen our understanding of more systematic modes of exploitation of labour in capitalism. In addition, he moves the reflection on the exploitation in higher education beyond the institutional shell. Moreover, his indirect address of the phenomenon of the ideal subsumption of academic labour in public institutions, that is, the penetration of the logic of capitalist valorisation into all areas of capitalist society, also deserves recognition. Finally, I appreciate that Bates recognizes the political importance of considering the contemporary situation of academics in terms of exploitation, thereby he stresses the need for their political mobilisation across sectoral boundaries. 

Bates, David (2021). Academic Labor and its Exploitation. Theory & Event, 24(4): 1090-1109. DOI: 10.1353/tae.2021.0060 

Published inMarxist Higher Education Research