Education-line Home Page

Education and Social Justice within the Social Universe of Capital

Glenn Rikowski

 Senior Research Fellow in Lifelong Learning, Faculty of Education, University of Central England, Birmingham, UK

Paper presented at the BERA day seminar on "Approaching Social Justice in Education: Theoretical Frameworks for Practical Purposes", Faculty of Education, Nottingham Trent University, 10th April, 2000



We are all equal. There is no problem of social justice. But this is only so on the basis of exchange-value. My labour will exchange in definite proportions to that of Nicola Horlick's and other sharp City operators. Yours is equal to that of the 30 million worth of footballer's labour of Christian Vieri; again, in a definite proportion. However, Vieri's labour-time expressed as a price (his wage) is likely to be much more valuable than yours is; a minute of his labour-time (even when his training is taken into account) will buy far more (when converted into money wages) than a minute of your (or my own) labour.


The social substance of the social universe of capital is value: capital is value-in-motion (Kay and Mott, 1982, p.8)1. In this social universe, all phenomena assume particular social forms. Therefore, the key question is not what 'social justice' means but what form it takes on in capitalist society and this short paper pursues this question. This involves providing an outline of the form of social justice that is socially validated within the social universe of capital. In the scenario outlined above, massive inequality rests upon the social form of equality (and hence social justice) incorporated within the social universe of capital.


The formal equality of labour established through exchange-value is the basis of the only form of social justice that is socially validated on the basis of capital. However, the struggle for social justice on the basis of equality of labour (that resolves itself into equalisation of labour-power, capacity to labour) runs counter to the form of social justice validated by capital. It is necessarily subversive. If this is correct, then it becomes possible to show how the struggle (by workers, ethnic minorities, women, gays and lesbians, etc.) for social justice on the basis of labour-power equalisation clashes against (negates) itself as the only form of social justice generated by capital through exchange-value.


Education and training (through the social production of labour-power) play a critical role in establishing capital's formal equality of labour-powers (and of labourers). Demonstrating this also uncovers the limitations of education and training (as elements within the social production of labour-power)2 for creating socially equal forms of labour, and hence labourers as social equals. These limitations arise from the fact that institutions of education and training are important, but not the only, elements involved in the social production of labour-power in contemporary capitalist society. The social production of labour-power in capitalist society also includes the development of labour-powers arising from activity within the labour process itself - and this is not susceptible to equalisation, as labour in capitalism presupposes 'flexibility' of expression. However, this perspective does yield a positive outcome for approaching social justice in education. It generates entitlement based on equality of labour-time and quality of inputs into labour-power formation. Of course, this entitlement does not assume that all education and training is about labour-power enhancement, but merely that insofar as it is then individuals receive equality of labour-time inputs (from teachers, trainers and others practically involved in the social production of labour-power) and equal quality of inputs.


Without application of the entitlement principle, social justice within capitalist education and training becomes a farce as humans are differentially valorised - their labour-powers are socially designated as incorporating different values. This is the practical outcome of differential inputs into the formation of individual labour-powers, and this may also generate differences (systemic or unsystematic) between social groups (e.g. males and females). However, attempts to equalise labour-powers (and hence the labourers who own their labour-powers) ex post facto result in situations of inequality and unfairness. For example, if people with different labour-power values are paid the same rate for their labour, then this becomes a situation of gross unfairness on the basis of the form of social justice validated by capital. The entitlement to equality of labour-power development looms as partial resolution: as labour-powers of equal value are of equal worth in the social universe of capital.


Turning the previous argument on its head, the struggle for equality in education and training on the basis of equality of valorisation of labour-powers, challenges capital's social power. This is because the inequalities of labour-power quality generated within the capitalist labour process require re-equalisation to the socially average level in order to attain the equalisation of labour-power values that is the foundation of social justice in capitalism. As individual capitals are responsible for generating these inequalities, then they are responsible for re-engineering labour-power equality. Thus: capitalist enterprises are responsible for providing compensatory education and training in order to equalise labour-power values. As this process has indeterminate effects regarding surplus-value creation, which is the basis of capitalist profit, it is unlikely that, in practice, representatives of capital (employers) would pick up the tab.


Whether representatives of capital or the state-form finance labour-power equalisation is beside the point. There is no inherent drive for equalisation of labour-power values within capitalist society. Quite the opposite: the social drive to increase labour-power quality is infinite. This can be illustrated through examples,3 and also through exploring the notion of a social drive of capital (Rikowski, 2000). The practical expression of the infinite social drive to enhance labour-power quality necessarily creates inequality of labour-power values, and this constantly undermines any practical attempts at labour-power equalisation. Again, the practical considerations involved also miss the point. The infinite drive to enhance labour-power quality negates equalisation of the value of labour-powers. The latter has no theoretical - let alone practical - mode of existence. It is shattered and fragmented by the former, a priori. More importantly, what this indicates, is that the form of social justice validated by capitalist relations of production cannot logically (let alone practically) be expressed. Social justice on the basis of capital exists only in the form of a mode of social life denied. The concept of 'mode of existence (or being) denied' (as in Gunn, 1992, 1994) typically reveals a duality of life within the social universe of capital, where one side of the duality points towards life beyond the realm of capital. This revolutionary moment is denied (it becomes unsustainable) on the basis of the form of life within the social universe of capital. In the argument developed here, social justice is opened up on the basis of exchange-value and the equalisation of labour-powers, only to be closed down on the basis of capital's social drive (expressed as an infinitude) to enhance labour-power quality - thereby generating inequalities of labour-power values. On this analysis therefore, social justice is impossible in capitalist society. Social justice in capitalist society is the struggle for social justice itself: the struggle to make it real, when only its virtual existence is possible within the social universe of capital.


The opening up of social justice on the basis of exchange-value and the equalisation of labour-powers is nevertheless significant. The uncovering of the form that social justice takes in capitalist society is an indicator of a suppressed form of sustainable life: communism. The struggle for social justice is therefore simultaneously the struggle to liberate a form of social life - communism - where social justice can take on a real (as opposed to virtual) existence. The inequalities generated by: the infinite social drive to enhance labour-power; the deviation of the price of labour (expressed in paid money wages) from the value of labour-power (the wage as outcome of socially necessary labour); and, finally, the vast inequality of money rewards for labour these processes entail - collectively provide the spark to seek practical solutions to gross social inequalities. Those at the sharp end of this process, and in the UK increasingly many more as labour reward inequalities increase, may be angered to the point of anti-capitalist action by this situation.


Social justice is a latent social form within capitalist society that cannot attain real existence. As sustainable social justice is impossible on the basis of capitalist social forms, the drive to create social justice in capitalist society - fired by the anger of shocking social inequality - pushes at the boundaries of capitalist social relations, and against the limits of capital itself. The struggle for social justice in capitalist society is, therefore, an aspect of a struggle for a form of life where social justice is possible: communism. Communism is '... not a state of affairs which is to be established ... [but is] ... the real movement which abolishes the present state of things' (Marx and Engels, 1846, p.57 - original emphases). Struggles for educational and labour market equality are necessarily linked to the struggle against the social force that oppresses us all: capital. There are not two separate struggles: one form of struggle against inequalities within capitalism, on the one hand; and, then against capital itself - as a social force flowing through social relations - on the other. There is only one fight, but the enemy - capital - is everywhere; we exist within its social universe, after all. There is no hiding place; it is even within us as alien social force (Rikowski, 1999a-b). There are no 'externalities' involved, and hence there is no 'inside' either. Capital as the expansion of value increasingly becomes all that there is - on an historically progressive scale within its own social universe. Capital deepens as social force within its own universe at the same time as the substance of this universe (value) expands (Rikowski, 1999b).


Fortunately, the flow of capital as social force into the 'human' does not close off history by the eradication of 'humanity'. As the 'human' progressively morphs into a form of capital, human capital, the contradictions of capital are also incorporated within 'humans'. Thus, although we are, and continue to become, capital on a progressive scale, our awareness of ourselves as capital increases. Furthermore, we are driven to attempt to solve the contradictions incorporated within ourselves as forms of capital. We are driven to address contradictions of everyday life thrown up by capitalist social forms materialised in concrete institutions and organisations. This makes the social universe of capital an unsafe place - for capital itself.


The struggle for social justice in capitalist society is an aspect of trying to make sense of our predicament. In attempts to transform social justice from something virtual into a real possibility, in trying to ground principles of social life on a rational basis in a mad world, we start to put the social universe of capital at risk. Its fragility is exposed. Our hopes for social justice depend upon us uncovering the weaknesses of capital within its (the only apparent) social universe (Holloway, 1995). On the basis of these insights, collective mobilisation against capital at precisely those weak spots maximises the likelihood of success for dissolving the social universe of capital.



The concept of 'the social universe of capital' is explained in and expanded on in Neary and Rikowski (2000), available on request.

The social production of labour-power in capitalism is uncovered and outlined by Rikowski (1990, 1999b).

These examples are outlined in Rikowski (2000), which is available on request.



Gunn, R. (1992) Against Historical Materialism: Marxism as First-Order Discourse, in: W. Bonefeld, R. Gunn & K. Psychopedis (eds) Open Marxism: Volume 2 - Theory and Practice (London: Pluto Press).

Gunn, R. (1994) Marxism and Contradiction, Common Sense, No.15, pp.53-58.

Holloway, J. (1995) From Scream of Refusal to Scream of Power: The Centrality if Work, in: W. Bonefeld, R. Gunn, J. Holloway & C. Psychopedis (eds) Emancipating Marx: Open Marxism - Volume 3 (London: Pluto Press).

Kay, G. & Mott, J. (1982) Political Order and the Law of Labour (London & Basingstoke: Macmillan).

Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1846) [1976] The German Ideology (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

Neary, M. & Rikowski, G. (2000) The Speed of Life: the significance of Karl Marx's concept of socially necessary labour-time. Paper prepared for the British Sociological Association Annual Conference 2000, Making Time - Marking Time, University of York, April.

Rikowski, G. (1990) The Recruitment Process and Labour Power. Unpublished Paper, Division of Humanities & Modern Languages, Epping Forest College, Loughton, Essex.

Rikowski, G. (1999a) Nietzsche, Marx and Mastery: the Learning Unto Death, in: P. Ainley & H. Rainbird (eds) Apprenticeship: Towards a New Paradigm of Learning (London: Kogan Page).

Rikowski, G. (1999b) Education, Capital and the Transhuman, in: D. Hill, P. McLaren, M. Cole & G. Rikowski (eds) Postmodernism in Educational Theory: Education and the Politics of Human Resistance (London: the Tufnell Press).

Rikowski, G. (2000) Why employers can't ever get what they want. In fact, they can't even get what they need. Paper presented at the School of PCET Seminar, University of Greenwich, Queen Anne's Palace, 30 Park Row, Greenwich, 27th March.


Glenn Rikowski

Faculty of Education, University of Central England

10th April 2000 and

This document was added to the Education-line database on 28 November 2000