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Messing with the Explosive Commodity:

School Improvement, Educational Research and Labour-Power In the Era of Global Capitalism

Glenn Rikowski

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Conference, Cardiff University, 7-10 September 2000

for the Symposium on

'If We Aren't Pursuing Improvement, What Are We Doing?'

Convened by Joanna Swann


Are social scientists asking the right questions? For example, what is new in educational research? How has educational research actually advanced in recent years? What new and fundamental research questions has it tackled? How might researching such questions lead to new and better forms of teaching and learning practice? (Professor Ron Amman, ESRC Chief Executive, Speech in the Senate Room, University of Birmingham, May 1996 - in Rikowski, 1996, p.3)

Prelude II(1): the Social Universe of Capital

We live in the social universe of capital. The substance of this social universe is value (Neary, 2000; Neary and Rikowski, 2000; Rikowski, 2000). Capital is value in motion (Kay and Mott, 1982). Value is not a "thing". In its first incarnation in the capitalist labour process it inheres within some material "things", in commodities; though it can also be created within immaterial commodities too (Lazzarato, 1996; Burford, 2000)(2). Thus, value, as the substance of the social universe of capital should not be thought of as some kind of 'stuff', some material substratum. It is, after all, a social substance. Value can be viewed as being social energy that undergoes transformations: its first metamorphosis being its constitution as capital in the form of surplus value. As Ana Dinerstein (1997) notes, 'social energy is permanently being transformed' (p.83), and created too. Value is a 'multi-dimensional field of social energy: a social substance with a directional dynamic (expansion) but no social identity' (Neary and Rikowski, 2000, p.18). It is the 'matter and anti-matter of Marx's social universe' (ibid.).

Although value is the substance constituting the social universe of capital it is not self-generating. It cannot create itself, nor can it morph into capital on its own accord. It is labour (Marx, 1867a) that creates value and mediates its various transformations (Postone, 1996), firstly into capital on the basis of surplus value, and then the myriad forms of capital springing from surplus value. As Karl Marx (1858) indicated in the Grundrisse:

Labour is the living, form-giving fire; it is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, as their formation by living time. (p.361)

Thus: the existence of the substance (value as social energy) that constitutes the social universe depends upon our labour. Labour, in turn, is dependent upon our capacity to labour; the energy, skills, knowledge, physical and personal qualities that we, as labourers, posses. In sum, the activity of our labour (in conjunction with means of production and raw materials) rests upon our capacity to labour: our labour power. Marx defines labour power in the following way; it is...

... the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description. (1867a, p.164)

Labour power here has real existence: it exists as it is transformed into labour (otherwise, in the labour market, it has virtual existence within the body of the potential labourer). Labour power is fuel for the living fire (labour). In the labour process, labour power (potential, capacity to labour) is transformed into labour (activity, actuality). The personal and physical qualities, powers, skills and so on of labourers are activated by the will of the labourer for the performance of labour.

On the basis of Marx's definition of labour power above, and in conjunction with research undertaken by myself (Rikowski, 1990), labour power includes not just the usual 'skills' and knowledge but also incorporates the attitudes and personality traits essential for effective performance within the labour process. It depends, therefore, on what is included within 'mental capabilities'. Empirical research on the recruitment process (the process where employers assess labour power) (e.g. studies cited in Rikowski, 1990), suggests 'mental capabilities' must include work attitudes, social attitudes and personality traits - aspects of our 'personalities'. These too are incorporated within labour power as it transforms itself into labour. Cuming's (1983) research gives further weight to this suggestion.

In contemporary capitalist society, education and training are elements within definite forms of labour power's social production. Empirically, these forms show wide variation. They remain almost entirely uncharted(3). The significant point is that the substance of the social universe of capital (value) rests upon our labour, which in turn hinges on labour power being transformed into labour in the labour process for the production of (im/material) commodities. Labour power (its formation and quality), rests partly (though not exclusively) upon education and training in contemporary capitalism. This is the real significance of education and training in capitalism today. It is the source both of teachers' and trainers' social power. It is also the dread beneath the paranoia expressed by representatives of capital and the capitalist state as they seek to control the formation of labour power so that it is confined within the value-form of labour. Angst results also from the drive to raise labour power quality (for competition with other national capitals). What defines 'capitalist' schooling and training as precisely capitalist is that it is implicated in generating the substance of the social universe of capital: value. We have come full circle. We are trapped within the labyrinth of capital.

To destroy this social universe it must be exploded from within, or imploded. The powers that allow generation and expansion of the social universe of capital based on value can be challenged and destroyed for human liberation. Indeed, in attempting to find solutions to our predicament within this social universe as capitalised humanity, human capital (humans as capital), we are driven to crash against the barriers of capitalist life, against the social relations of capital itself (Rikowski, 1999a).

Value's generative powers are labour and labour power, but education and training in today's capitalism inputs into labour power formation - and hence impacts on value-creation. Labour power is the most explosive commodity on the world market today. It is its fuel (the skills, qualities and other attributes of the labourer making for effective labour), and its dull spark (subsumption of the will of the labourer to the point of active labour), that energises the fire of labour. Labour power is explosive in another sense. New forms of labour power expenditure, and hence new forms of labour, based upon human need - forms that crash beyond the value-form of labour, cutting short the formation of capital - point towards a form of social life that is suppressed within the social universe of capital: communism.

Education and training, as well as contributing towards the social production of labour powers, contain, restrain and confine this social production within limits set by the value-form of labour. They defuse and stabilise labour power as an explosive commodity that can form the basis of kinds of labour that shatters limitations imposed by the value-form of labour. Education and training in this sense are the enemy of a future of humanity as not-capital, humanity uncapitalised - hence able to have a future, to posses the future rather than being possessed by it as capital.

Politically, therefore, struggles over education and training have never been more significant than they are today. This significance has never been clearer, especially in this country as the New Labour Government constantly tells us that it wants to re-design us as ever-higher quality human capital. Human capital is the social form that labour power takes in capitalist society (Rikowski, 1999a). It is incorporated within the 'human' itself (ibid.), within us. The implosion and dissolution of the capitalist form (human capital) of the explosive commodity (labour power) necessarily involves changing ourselves. This occurs as we change simultaneously the social relations that maintain us as this horrific life form (i.e. the social relations nurturing and sustaining us as the capitalised life form that we have become). Education for human liberation of necessity includes educating ourselves regarding what we have become. Most importantly though, this has to incorporate revolutionary pedagogy. That is (after Peter McLaren, 2000): pedagogy for revolution from and against what we have become - for an open future. We are the enemies of the closed society: capitalism.

The Explosive Commodity (that other great class of commodities)(4)

It is well known that Karl Marx begins his first volume of Capital with the commodity, not capital. Marx first of all draws our attention to the fact that:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as "an immense accumulation of commodities," its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity. (Marx, 1867a, p.43)(5)

For Marx, the analysis of capitalist society begins with the commodity as it is the 'economic cell-form' (Marx, 1867b, p.19) of that society. It is the most simple and basic element that can inform us about more complex phenomena springing from it, in the same way that human DNA provides significant data on the more concrete features of humans in general and particular individuals. Moreover, value is not something that can be directly observed, thus:

In the analysis of economic forms ... neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both. ... [And to] ... the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy. (ibid.)

The commodity was the perfect starting point for Marx as it incorporates the basic structuring elements of capitalist society: value, use-value and exchange-value posited on the basis of abstract labour as measured by labour-time (Postone, 1996, pp.127-128). It is the condensed 'general form of the product' in capitalist society (ibid., p.148), the 'most elementary form of bourgeois wealth' (Marx, 1863, p.173), and hence the 'formation and premise of capitalist production' (Marx, 1866, p.1004). Commodities are also 'the first result of the immediate process of capitalist production, its product' (Marx, 1866, p.974).

In Theories of Surplus Value - Part One (Marx, 1863), Marx makes it clear that there are two classes or categories of commodities within the social universe of capital, for:

The whole world of "commodities" can be divided into two great parts. First, labour-power; second, commodities as distinct from labour-power itself. (Marx, 1863, p.167)

These commodities are distinguished essentially on the following consideration:

A commodity - as distinguished from labour-power itself - is a material thing confronting man, a thing of a certain utility for him, in which a definite quantity of labour is fixed or materialised. (Marx, 1863, p.164 - original emphasis)(6)

Later on in Theories of Surplus Value - Part One, Marx criticises Adam Smith for holding that the commodity, in order to incorporate value, has to be a physical, material thing. Value is a social substance; it has therefore a social mode of existence. Thus:

When we speak of the commodity as a materialisation of labour - in the sense of its exchange-value - this is only an imaginary, that is to say, a purely social mode of existence of the commodity which has nothing to do with its corporeal reality; it is conceived as a definite quantity of social labour or of money. (Marx, 1863, p.171 - my emphases).

Unfortunately, Marx confuses the issue by referring to "material commodities" and commodities as "objects" elsewhere. It should not be forgotten that Marx wrote Capital for the workers (whilst also trying to impress German professors). The examples he uses in Capital to illustrate his arguments relating to commodities were nearly all of the material, 'object' kind: coats, linen, iron paper and so on. In the first volume of Capital, Marx states that: 'A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another' (1867a, p.43 - my emphasis). Here, he seems to be ruling out products such as transport, drama performances and education (examples that he had ruled in as commodities in Theories of Surplus Value - Part One) as instances of commodities. Thus, here, Marx rules out immaterial commodities. Without going deeper into the issue here, I would maintain that a really radical interpretation of Marx would start out from the commodity as inclusive of material and immaterial forms (and Lazzarato, 1996 contains an interesting discussion on this issue). Indeed, the distinction between material and immaterial commodities is practically dissolving on a daily basis. The commodity form (commodification) is taking hold of all spheres of social existence.

This last point is crucial. Marx's original distinction between labour power and the 'general class' of commodities was that the latter were external to the person of the labourer, whereas labour power was incorporated within personhood itself. However, with people buying cosmetic surgery, the market in spare body parts and the future beckoning big business in human design and re-design facilities (Joy, 2000), the physical externality of the 'general class' of commodities to human beings is no longer what it was in Marx's day. These developments herald the breakdown of this aspect of Marx's original distinction between the two great classes of commodities. What, then, is the distinction between the two categories of commodities if the externality criterion is no longer what it was?

It could be argued that a distinction still exists between the two great classes on the following considerations. First, labour power is an aspect of the person; it is internal to personhood, in a special sense. It is a unified force flowing throughout the person. The installation of a new heart - an object originally external to the person in question, or an artificial hip joint - does not change this. Labour power has no specific location within personhood; it is a force flowing throughout the totality the person. Labour power has reality only within the person, whereas general commodities have existence external to the person and can also become elements of persons, as increasing numbers of medical products become incorporated within the human. Labour power, as a human force, cannot leave humans and, for example, act as the same force within bricks. As Marx noted, labour power does 'not exist apart from him [the labourer] at all' (Marx, 1858, p.267). It cannot be external to the person (though items of the 'general class' of commodities can be part of personhood). Marx notes the 'uniqueness' of labour power in this respect (1863, p.45). Secondly, labour power (unlike a brick) is under the sway of a potentially hostile will. Internality and consciousness distinguish labour power from the general class of commodities and itself.

However, it could be argued that some animals have a capacity to labour (e.g. pit ponies, dray horses, police dogs), and also have consciousness. A final point presents human labour power as qualitatively different from animal labour power: socially average human labour power uniquely constitutes value. It is the labour performed by socially average human labour power that is the foundation of the abstract labour that forms value. Abstract labour rests upon the socially necessary labour time required to produce any use value under conditions normal for a given society, and this presupposes socially average human labour power (Marx, 1867; Neary and Rikowski, 2000, pp.20-21). Human labour power (at the socially average) constitutes value, not concrete (directly observable) labour (Marx, 1867). No other commodity (either living or dead) has this unique capacity. Wo(men) are the 'measure of all things'; the social universe of capital is constituted, and its most fundamental social forms (value and capital) are created and mediated (in their transformations), by us. Yet capital, as social force and relation, comes to dominate us, its progenitors (Postone, 1996).

Labour power, on this account, is the special commodity that generates value (the substance of capital) and hence capital itself. Without human labour power, there is no capital - no matter what the level of technological development. The next section offers a brief account of the generation of value and surplus value. It illustrates the centrality of labour power to the maintenance and expansion of the social universe of capital.

Value and Surplus-value in the Era of Global Capital

In capitalist society, the labour process has a dual nature. First, it is a process of producing use-values; these are useful 'things' that 'become a reality only by use or consumption' (Marx, 1867, p.44). Without any usefulness, a product is not a commodity at all - no matter how much labour has gone into it. The value of that labour will not be realised in its sale; there are no buyers for useless products, though what is "useful" has a social dimension (much played upon by advertising companies and rip-off merchants).

However, the capitalist labour process is also, and quintessentially, a valorisation process, a process of producing value. Commodities in capitalist society incorporate both use-value (their qualitative aspect) and value (their quantitative aspect). After the capitalist (or these days, representatives of capital) have bought means of production and any raw materials required, it is the transformation of labour power (our force, skills and so on - human mental and physical energy) into actual labour that creates value through the production of commodities. Value inheres within, is incorporated within, commodities. Workers (and their offspring) have to live - otherwise the whole process is put at risk for the future. Thus, the value of labour power itself is determined by the value of necessities 'required to produce, develop, maintain, and perpetuate the labouring power' (Marx, 1865, p.57) - again, to the social average (acknowledging social and historical changes in the constitution of "necessities"). The value of labour power is defined by the labour-time it takes the labourer (and in toto the mass of labour powers) to create value through acts of labour in the labour process sufficient to the total value of these "necessities". Any value above that level of labouring produces surplus value. Labour-time, therefore is split into two parts: that part that goes towards creating value for the social reproduction of the labourer(s), and that part which is unpaid, unrequited labour-time. The wage form masks this difference. When we are paid wages, it appears that we are paid for all the work that we do - to the last microsecond. This is an illusion, but a necessary illusion, and one upon which the whole capitalist system depends.

Surplus value is the lifeblood of capital. It is the first form in which capital appears, and is the source of profit, state revenues and other forms of capital. It is the basis of subsequent production cycles. However, although labourers sell their labour power as commodities (the commodities they own) to representatives of capital for a duration, there is no guarantee that enough labour will be undertaken to ensure the creation of surplus value. Collectively, capital's human representatives (managers, managing directors etc.) must drive on the labouring masses to ensure surplus value is produced. The concrete incentives for them to do so (profits, salaries, share options, bonuses and so on) are significant, as are competitive pressures to ensure their businesses stay in the market. This misses the point, which is that of necessity surplus value must be created in order that the competitive scramble to appropriate it can even begin. For the system as a whole (though individual capitals may fall by the wayside), surplus value production is an absolute, iron necessity.

It is labour power, as a unique social and individual force, that enables all this to happen. The containment of the expression of our abilities and capacities within the value-form of labour, (labour as the production of value), requires social oppression and repression on a vast, global scale. Furthermore, in the era of global capitalism the quality of labour power within national capitals (nation states) has become of increasing significance in the struggle to grab the maximum from the total surplus value produced on a world scale. This expresses itself in a restless and manic race amongst contemporary nation states to outdo each other on the quality of their labour powers. Each of the leading capitalist states searches for the Holy Grail of education and training that can deliver better quality labour power than competitors. This is one of the social drives of capital generating such phenomena as school improvement and effectiveness initiatives within schools - a point expanded on in a later section.

Relative Surplus-value: On the basis of labour power enhancement

There are two main ways of producing surplus value. The first is to extend the length of the working day. This effectively extends the labour-time that labourers are engaged in producing surplus value through labour that is not reflected in the wage. Marx called this absolute surplus value production. It is an old method, coming back into fashion now that labour markets everywhere have been made more 'flexible', with the number of hours worked by full-time workers in Britain on the increase over the last 20 years. This form of surplus value production has absolute limits: there are only 24 hours in a day and workers have to sleep, eat and reproduce. Attempts to break through the latter limits (as in the Industrial Revolution) result in the physical and mental deterioration of workers - thus ultimately affecting the quality of their labour powers (not such a problem when vast masses of new labour power are to hand).

The second method of surplus value creation Marx called relative surplus value production. Here, the labour-time it takes to produce value equal to the value of labour power (necessary labour) is reduced. The main way that this has occurred historically is through the application of machinery to production, including computer-based automation. Application of new technology has the effect of reducing the labour-time necessary for generating value equivalent to the value of labour power. It increases labour productivity. On a global scale, this effectively reduces the value of labour power across the board, as the value of each of the "necessities", constituting also the value of labour power, falls. This process increases the labour-time devoted to surplus value production, as a proportion of total labour-time (whilst this remains constant). The point at which surplus value arises from labouring in the labour process is reached earlier as compared with before the new technology was introduced. The working day is re-divided on the basis of necessary labour-time (where the labourer generates value up to point equal to the value of labour power) and labour-time over-and-above this when surplus value is produced - yielding more of the latter. This is only one way of producing relative surplus value.

In an era of globalisation where technological innovation spreads more quickly than ever before, capitals have been seeking new ways of generating relative surplus value. One of the forms of relative surplus value production that has gained increasing sponsorship in recent years is the strategy of enhancing the quality of labour power itself. If this could be done it would have the effect of reducing necessary labour (the labour-time taken to produce value equal to the value of labour power), hence increasing surplus value-creating time. The technicist point regarding whether 'really existing' education and training policies actually have this effect is not the issue - though it is an issue for many education and training researchers. The essential point to grasp is that in contemporary capitalism there is a social drive to enhance the quality of human labour power. This social drive, like all of capital's social drives is infinite. It would not make any logical sense within the perverted social universe of capital to suggest any real limit on the basis of the functioning of the system itself(7). However, in similar fashion to absolute surplus value production, the infinite social drive to enhance the quality of human labour power clashes with a number of practical considerations. First, labour power development depends on co-operation - which expresses itself in the 'problem of motivation', an individual willingness to aid development of one's own labour power. Secondly, when pushed too far we witness 'the humans are dropping like flies': humans buckling under as they are subjected to concrete (and hence necessarily limited) manifestations of an infinite social drive. Thus: depression (with no terminal point to 'improvement'); various forms of stress and ill health; and so on. Thirdly, people may protest and effectively revolt against an impersonal social drive 'manifesting' itself as concrete social practice. Fourthly, those generating these social practices are only human, all too human (though they are humans, that, like everyone else, have become forms of capital, humans capitalised - Rikowski, 1999a). As capitalised life-forms, the designers of concrete schemes that seek to nurture a social drive that is infinite can do this precisely because they have some affinity with these social practices that express capital's social drives. Fifthly, as "we" are capital too, we can aesthetically and logically 'appreciate' the concrete expressions of infinite social drives, whilst also being able to see the contradiction involved. This contradiction is the notion that an infinite social drive can be concretely expressed. The prospect is absurd, as it assumes infinite resources, time, labour (of a quality that is not just good but infinitely good) and effort (beyond all limits) to activate and effect the infinite social drive. Educational representatives of capital disguise this by urging all pupils and teachers to keep on going 'beyond their previous best' (e.g. Professor Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's Chief Education Officer).

We Are Driven: school improvement and effectiveness

On the analysis provided thus far, the school effectiveness and school improvement movement (SESIM) is a concrete (therefore, necessarily limited) expression of the abstract social drive to enhance the quality of human labour power. As a concrete expression, obviously the details take on differences as between nations, local education authorities or school effectiveness/improvement programmes. But this analysis has certain consequences and implications.

First, capital's abstract social drives are inherent within capital itself. The complete abolition of any school effectiveness or school improvement (SESI) programme would not abolish this drive itself; only the abolition of the value-form of labour (and hence capital) could have that result.

Second, on the basis of this social drive we are also driven to concretise it. The drive to enhance labour power quality is an infinite social drive within the social universe of capital. Arguments for activating this drive through concrete practice - (as the SESIM, as individual programmes for improvement in schools, also as college effectiveness/improvement, university effectiveness/improvement - indeed as improvement/effectiveness of any element within the social production of labour power) - are always socially validated within the social universe of capital. Such projects are validated and conferred credibility on the basis of the perverted logic of capitalist development, and the development of capital. This is so even though the human costs (teacher suicide, pupil stress, increasing numbers of pupils on behaviour-modifying drugs and so on - the immiseration of education noted by Janet McKenzie, 2000) are increasingly well-documented in the national and educational press.

Thirdly, the argument here has situated SESI within the social universe of capital. It has uncovered some of the deeper forces making for the existence of the SESIM. This analysis has gone beyond technicism (technical debates about which actual changes in school processes and practices lead to greater school effectiveness or to school improvement). It has also undercut the abstract nature of the SESI enterprise by locating the SESIM within the social universe of capital, hence no longer viewing it purely on its own terms.

This Symposium's title assumes that we have a much greater degree of freedom (as a nation, as local education authorities, as schools, as Head teachers and so on) to choose to effect improvement in schools than in fact we do have. The Symposium title also carries within it the ethical depth-charge that if we are not pursuing school improvement then we ought to be: otherwise, what are we doing as education researchers? What else is there? Isn't this what education research is all about? The analysis of this paper suggests that we be socially driven towards SESI. Thus: it is not really a question of "choice", more a question of explaining why we do as we do, give the social universe we find ourselves in. It entails providing a social explanation that enlightens simultaneously the nature of the 'social' within which we exist: the social universe of capital.

On the basis of the social drive to enhance labour power quality, a generalised social drive that has many concrete expressions, it would be no surprise to discover that education research itself was subject to this same social drive. When recent developments within education research in England are examined, this is what can be found. There is a tightening of education research around SESI that has gathered pace in the last few years. The pertinent concrete expressions here include the ESRC Teaching and Learning Programme and the recent DfEE proposals to oversee more closely the efforts and priorities of education research (see Sebba, 2000). One Popperian-like conjecture: in five years time education research shall be even more tied to SESI than it is now (along with more college/university improvement/effectiveness initiatives, too).

Messing with the Explosive Commodity (they know not what they do)

The SESIM is an abstract technicist enterprise premised on the basis that schools can be improved, or made to be more effective, as a discrete end in itself. Even this misses the point. This is that the very notion of SESI in 'really existing capitalism' is a concrete expression of an abstract, but real, social drive to enhance the quality of human labour power. SESI, on this basis, cannot be practically separated from this social drive. The notion of SESI implied by this process suggests that the SESIM is messing with the explosive commodity (labour power). It is merely messing with it because it does not recognise its existence within its own frame of reference. This frame of reference is concerned with improving a range of outputs conceived as being 'educational' in nature, or making schools more effective as 'educational' institutions.

The SESIM operates in a box-like social world where what is really going is left unexplored and unexplained. To actually explore it however presupposes adopting communist science that starts out from basic premises founded upon Karl Marx's social universe: the social universe of capital. Mere consideration of the possibility of this occurrence is laughable. Another Popperian-like conjecture: the SESIM soldiers on regardless, continuing to tinker with the explosive commodity to an ever greater degree, its practitioners 'knowing not what they do', but socially driven to do it.

One day, perhaps, the most explosive of commodities may indeed explode. This would entail school students themselves, parents and others recognising what students and trainees are socially driven to be in capitalist education and training: their humanity reduced to labour power on an expanding and intensified scale. It would entail the SESIM protagonists recognising the social existence of labour power and their own efforts to reduce humanity to it. As someone else has remarked, using a different sense of "explosion":

"Bring on the bomb, let's get it on! I said bring on the bomb, let's get it on. Get it on" (Easterhouse, Waiting for the Redbird, Rough Trade Records, 1989).

What Are We Doing?

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it (Karl Marx, 1845, Theses on Feuerbach, Thesis 11, p.620).

If 'we' are Marxist educational theorists and researchers, then 'what are we doing'? I am not personally committed to pursuing 'school improvement'(8) as currently constituted, but I understand what it means. I have two children of secondary school age (and another who left school last year). This helps me to grasp its concrete effects on people's lives. On the other hand, I live in a society that is heavily engaged in SESI. It is a society where Government Ministers openly use the language of labour power enhancement (human capital development) in its praise and for its justification. So: what am I doing, as a Marxist involved in education? Why should Marxists be bothered with depressing capitalist schooling and training when they could be doing other things - supporting picket lines, selling radical newspapers and so on to support revolutionary social transformation?

In my article Third Fantasy from the Right (Rikowski, 1999b), I explained that 'Marxism articulates the fragility of the social force that oppresses us all, the social force dominating humanity: capital' (p.26). Furthermore, Marxism:

... also seeks out the weaknesses of the domination of capital, ... and aims to nurture and support political organisations, strategies, acts of subversion and forms of fun which press upon these weak points in an effort to overturn and abolish the rule of capital and its associated horrors. (Rikowski, 1999b, p.27)

Finally, Marxism is primarily a theory, not of, but against (capitalist) society. Insofar as it is a theory of society then it is a...

... negative theory of society. It attempts to theoretically and practically dissolve the value-form of labour, classes (abolition, not celebration of the working class) and all other forms of oppression. Communism represents the movement of this project. (ibid.)

On this account of Marxism, and from the overall analysis of this paper, it should now be obvious why a Marxist might find working in an education department - or indeed any educational environment - rewarding. Labour power is the foundation of capital; its transformation into labour is the basis of value and surplus value. Education and training are heavily implicated in the social production of the one commodity - labour power - on which the whole capitalist system rests. Strategically, therefore, labour power and its social production are weak points within the domination of capital. There is no better phenomenon to study, if anyone is seriously interested in locating capital's weak links, than to be researching the social production of labour power, or to be an educator. To be actively involved in the social production of labour power, or in researching it, is to be in the hot seat regarding gaining an understanding of this unique commodity and its social production - a commodity on which the existence of the social universe of capital depends. Those who are involved in any way in education are privileged: they have a ringside seat for observation and are active participants in the social production of labour power.

Those involved in education also have more opportunities for developing critical education and revolutionary pedagogies that challenge the social domination of capital (Allman, 1999; McLaren, 2000). They have everyday access to significant processes of labour power formation. Possibilities for 'revolutionary praxis' (Allman, 1999) can be generated even in the harsh conditions and unpromising milieu of contemporary capitalist education.

To be realistic: New Labour's embrace of capital has, on the other hand, intensified the reduction of humanity to labour power through its education policy. Yet this intensification of the process (no matter what the concrete results) is also risky. As I have argued elsewhere (Rikowski, 1999a), the more we become capital, humans capitalised, then paradoxically, the more we recognise capital within us as we are forced to deal with its contradictions as aspects of our own lives. New Labour's education policy makes all this clearer, including our own awareness of what we have become, and where we are headed. We are not alone.


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1. The first 'Prelude' can be found in Education, Capital and the Transhuman (Rikowski, 1999a, pp.50-53).

2. As Burford (2000) notes, this point has tremendous implications for theorising social class. The main one being that - as against mainstream sociological conceptions of class - there is no essential split between manual and non-manual labour, nor between manufacturing industry and services. Labour in service industries also creates value and surplus value. This challenges the whole basis of the conception of social class currently in use in sociological discussions. For Burford, social class is based on value, the social substance at the heart of capitalist society, not on some superficial cultural, status or income considerations.

3. Though I have made some very preliminary investigations of some of these empirical forms of labour power production in unpublished work, in relation to the social production of engineering technicians and craftspeople.

4. This section draws heavily on my other BERA 2000 paper: That Other Great Class of Commodities: Repositioning Marxist Educational Theory.

5. Marx had made this point earlier in A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859, p.27) and also in the Grundrisse (1858, p.881).

6. See also: 'The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its qualities, satisfies human need of whatever kind (Marx, 1858, p.125).

7. Just as there are no logical limits to value production in its relative form. A moral limit on what constitutes a 'fair wage' or 'a good day's work' has no validity within the social universe of capital.

8. Nevertheless, as a contract education researcher, of course I have worked on projects engaged with processes of educational 'improvement' (Education Action Zones, HE/business links, college finance etc.). This would be expected when the bulk of education research is this, or is premised or justified on this basis.

Dr. Glenn Rikowski is Senior Research Fellow in Lifelong Learning, Faculty of Education, University of Central England in Birmingham, England. If you have any comments, observations or suggestions regarding this paper then please contact: or,

This document was added to the Education-line database on 21 November 2000