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After the manuscript broke off: thoughts on Marx, social class and education

Glenn Rikowski

Faculty of Education, University of Central England in Birmingham

A paper prepared for the British Sociological Association Education Study Group Meeting, King's College London, 23rd June 2001


The essence of education is precisely the freedom to question, and to seek answers, whether it offends people's self-gratification or not. (Dave Hill, in Cole et al, 2001, Red Chalk: on schooling, capitalism and politics, p.66)

Since 1945 ours has become a more middle-class society; the manual working class is a thing of the past in terms of social identification. (David Walker, The Guardian, 30th April 2001, p.15)

Class struggles do not necessarily take place between groups of people whose identities are constituted by the objective reality and subjective consciousness of a particular location in a social structure. Rather, they take place whenever there is an attempt to change the way in which surplus labour is produced, appropriated, or distributed. (Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson, 1995, p.59 - in McLaren and Farahmandpur, 2001)

... although the majority of the British population consider themselves working class, it is a concept that has been abandoned by social scientists. (Simon Clarke, 1999, The Labour Debate, p.1)


Introduction: the abandonment of class

For those interested in exploring relations between education and social class from a Marxist perspective, or, more accurately examining education as an aspect of 'class', these are interesting times. First, as Simon Clarke (1999) notes, we witness the virtual abandonment of the notion of the working class - not just by erstwhile postmodernists, but also by mainstream social scientists. Most people who analyse social class today do no such thing; rather, they have social inequality and stratification in view. Social class itself is evaded and avoided. This bad seed at the heart of capitalist society, indeed its existence at capital's structural core, is covered in mounds of obfuscation even though 'we live it ... It is part of our lives, all around us', as Dave Hill extemporises (Hill, in Cole et al, 2001, p.19).

Secondly, viewed as the class relation, the relation between capital and labour, the real situation concurs with Dave Hill's gut reaction: class is everywhere, is all around us, and within us (as human capital) - as we live in capital's social universe whose substance is value (Rikowski, 2000a-c, 2001a-b). Class taken as the capital relation is inescapable, unavoidable, for there is no hiding place as we live in a specific social universe (the social universe of capital) that is premised upon the tragic antagonism between capital and labour.

Thus, within contemporary social theory in general and class analysis in particular there is a 'reality gap'. There is a chasm between 'class as social inequality and stratification' in theory, and class as an element of the constitution of a world of struggle in practice. The violent relation at the heart of our social world is the capital relation, the struggle between capital and labour that is everywhere. Today, capital is a social force pervading everywhere that we (those that labour) are. On this basis, no place that we know is safe from capital as it seeps into wherever our actual, virtual and theoretical (in the sciences) forms of social existence develop. I read in a newspaper a few weeks ago (but unfortunately lost the article) that even now corporate enterprises are plotting to carve up the solar system and beyond.1 As human forms of capital we are not safe with ourselves! As in the film Alien, the class struggle goes into space and the deep message of the film is that the real monster is what we are becoming.

But looked at in this way, what role does education play? The argument of this paper is that education is a key process in the generation of the capital relation; this is the skeleton in capitalist education's dank basement. This is just one of the many reasons why, in contemporary capitalist society, education assumes a grotesque and perverted form. It links the chains that bind our souls to capital. It is one of the ropes comprising the ring for combat between labour and capital, a clash that powers contemporary history: the class struggle. That it is uncomfortable for educational theorists, researchers, activists and practitioners to talk about such unsavoury topics is not surprising. However, only by pinching our noses and uncovering the lid on this issue can Marxist science hope to advance.

The paper develops in the following way. First, it opens with a discussion of the closing sections of the third volume of Marx's Capital (1865) where he embarks on an analysis of social class that is abruptly curtailed and 'the manuscript breaks off'. It is surmised that Marx at this point realised that he was not providing a dynamic view of class and class struggle. He was in grave danger of becoming a 'box person' (classifying people into categories). Marx shrank from this depressing prospect in 1865 (when the third volume of Capital was drafted), and never took up the challenge of theorising class up to his death in 1883. But what is wrong with being a box person on the issue of social class? The second section spells out the consequences of misreading social class as social inequality and stratification. This section draws on recent work by Dave Hill, Mike Cole (Cole, 2000; Cole in Cole et al, 2001; Hill and Cole, 2001; Hill, Sanders and Hankin, 2001) and Werner Bonefeld (1999). The third section begins to develop a Marxist analysis of class by uncovering a proto-perspective drawn from the works of Karl Marx, Ana Dinerstein (1997), Michael Neary (1997, 2000a-b) and Moishe Postone (1996). This section focuses on the notion of totality, and specifically capitalist totality, or the social universe of capital within which class attains social existence and vitality. Class, as a social relation, is one of the phenomena integral to the existence of capital and capitalist society. From the overarching analysis of section 3, section 4 sketches out a view of social class based on the value-form of labour and the differentiation of commodities. There is a two-fold class divide: that based in the capital-labour relation (which is also internal to personhood), and that based on the two forms of commodity production, the 'two great classes of commodities' (Rikowski, 2000b, 2001a): the general class of commodities and labour-power. Section 5 indicates the significance of education - as an aspect of the social production of labour-power in contemporary society - for generating the class relation at the heart of capital's social universe, and in terms of delineating the major rift within labour itself. The Conclusion summarises the arguments and advances briefly the need for a politics of human resistance.

It must be confessed that I had not planned to write on social class for many years. One of the stereotypes advanced by non-Marxists is that Marxists always 'bang on' about class. It is not that I have deliberately avoided class (or race, or gender), but more a case of developing my work on labour-power theory to the extent that I had something new and interesting to say on class (and race and gender). However, people make history but not always in circumstances of their own choosing, and certainly not always at a pace they can control! The rawness of much of the analysis in this paper is a reflection of these facts of everyday life within the social universe of capital.


1. When the Manuscript broke off: Marx at the terminus of Capital

As many observers have noted (e.g. Ainley, 1993; Allman, 2001a; Bonefeld, 1999; Hickey, 2000; Hill and Cole, 2001; and Postone, 1996), Marx did not leave behind a developed view of social class. First there is the two-class perspective - bourgeoisie and proletariat - in The Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels, 1848) that many have ridiculed for being too simplistic and postmodernists have castigated for exhibiting a crass modernist dualism. Second, many have pointed towards Marx's 'more complex' rendering of the class structure in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Marx, 1852) as evidence that Marx himself moved beyond the 'superficial' two-class model of capitalist society. The Eighteenth Brumaire includes Marx's interesting discussion of the lumpenproletariat, the class of 'riff-raff' below the working class proper that some (e.g. Hickey, 2000) have likened to today's 'underclass'. Third, Marxist analysts have pinpointed Marx's discussions on clerical labour and the middle classes in volumes II and III of Capital (Marx, 1878 and 1865) as further evidence that Marx was articulating a complex view of class. Fourth, Marx's work on productive and unproductive labour in his three volumes of Theories of Surplus Value (Marx, 1863a-c) has provided additional evidence for some that Marx was engaged in extensive exploration of class relations. The key point is that those who perform productive labour (i.e. produce surplus value) can be viewed as belonging to the working class in its widest sense. However, that leaves those performing unproductive labour (i.e. as not directly producing surplus value) as being excluded from the class with a mission, and teachers and other public service workers are amongst those excluded. This in turn has led many to reformulate the notion of "productiveness" so as to include public service workers. Thus, the whole procedure has degenerated into a moralistic game of fixing the definitions so that all the 'good people' are redefined as being productive. Fifth, the distinction that Marx makes in The Poverty of Philosophy (1845) between a class-in-itself and a class-for-itself has received much comment and development.2 Sixth, major Marxist theorists such as Nicos Poulantzas, Guglielmo Carchedi, Erik Olin Wright and others have developed massively complex models of class and class structures. They have constructed theories of class re-composition and change too. Finally, Marxist sociologists have developed theories of class and changes in class composition and definitions over the last half-century. Rather than utilise one (or some combination) of these starting points, or attempt to summarise them all, I shall begin the paper with a discussion of an embarrassing moment in the history of Marxist class analysis: Marx's discussion at the terminus of the third volume of Capital.

Chapter LII of the third volume of Marx's Capital (1865, pp.885-886) is entitled simply 'Classes'. Some preliminary points, first Marx's friend Engels compiled volume III of Capital after Marx's death. Marx died in 1883 and Capital III first appeared in German in 1894 and in English in 1909. However, Marx wrote Capital III in 1865, leaving himself a good 18 years before he died to have expanded on the two pages we actually get in Capital III. Of course, Engels had the final decision in providing this particular seal on Marx's great work, but it should be noted that Marx obviously had the chance to write much more on social class, but chose not to. So what was the problem? The two pages we have give us some clues.

Without prevarication Marx's opening sentence in his 'Classes' chapter announces that:

The owners merely of labour-power, owners of capital, and land-owners, whose respective sources of income are wages, profit and ground-rent, in other words, wage-labourers, capitalists and landlords, constitute then three big classes of modern society based upon the capitalist mode of production. (Marx, 1865, p.885)

Thus, Marx is quite clear that there are three main classes in society, but the key point is how these are derived: their sources of income are what ground these three distinct social classes. It would seem then that source of income is the criterion that determines what class individuals are allocated to. But how can we determine with consistency and accuracy what differentiates sources of income?

Marx recognises that the three-class capitalist society rarely arises in a 'pure form' (1865, p.885). When surveying England, the society 'most highly and classically developed in economic structure', Marx indicates that there are other classes, the 'middle and intermediate strata' (ibid.). However, he argues that this misses the point, which is that the development of capitalist society entails the movement of all intermediate strata into the camps of labour (especially) and capital as increasing tracts of social life come under the sway of the capitalist mode of production. In this process, labour is transformed into wage-labour on an incremental scale. Landed property, likewise, is steadily transformed into landed property 'corresponding to the capitalist mode of production' (ibid.).

However, by framing a three-class social structure for capitalist society Marx is not entirely satisfied and he takes a step back to pose the following fundamental questions:

What constitutes a class? - and the reply to this follows naturally from the reply to another question, namely: What makes wage-labourers, capitalists and landlords constitute the three great social classes? (Marx, 1865, p.886)

Marx is aware he is going round in circles, for, he argues, the answer seems to be the same as before. For what makes these three great classes - wage-labourers, capitalists and landlords - form classes is:

At first glance - the identity of revenues and sources of revenue. There are three great social groups whose members, the individuals forming them, live on wages, profit and ground-rent respectively, on the realisation of their labour-power, their capital, and their landed property. (Marx, 1865, p.886)

There is a problem with this method of defining classes, however, for: 'from this standpoint, physicians and officials, e.g. would also constitute two classes, for they belong to two different social groups, the members of these groups receiving their revenue from one and the same source' (ibid.). It gets worse, as 'The same would also be true of the infinite fragmentation of interest and rank into which the division of social labour splits labourers as well as capitalists and landlords' (ibid.). Landlords, notes Marx, could be split into owners of vineyards, farm owners, owners of forests, mine owners and owners of fisheries. No doubt the capitalist class could be similarly split into fragments based on the type of ownership and sector of capital. Before his own eyes Marx has turned himself into a 'box person': someone who allocates people to a series of categories. 'Class' has become a static, formalistic category, a mere fetish of human classification, and at that point 'the manuscript breaks off' - and Marx pursues the definition of class no more in such a direct and categorical way.

Thus, in attempting to 'define' class Marx realises that the whole process becomes arbitrary and naturalistic, i.e. the classes are based on naturally occurring occupational groupings (labour), sectors of capital and sources of rent. Mere technicism has replaced social theory with explanatory force. Worse, Marx has lost the notion of class as a dynamic, dialectical relation of capital and labour with the power and explosiveness to push history forward, and has sold himself a dead grid for installing people instead. It must have been a very dispiriting moment for Marx as he realised what he was doing, and perhaps this contributed to his abandonment of the topic. He had become a 'box person'. Yet Marx was only prefiguring what is the dominant outlook on social class today in mainstream sociology and social and educational research. So, what is so bad about being a 'box person'? The following section addresses this question.

2. Social Inequality and Stratification, or Social Class: out of the mainstream

Education has done next to nothing to improve prospects for most young people, for the simple reason that there are only so many interesting jobs to go round and the middle classes make damn sure they know someone who can give their kids a leg up into them. (Julie Burchill, 2001, Busy doing nothing, p.7)

Today, most social and educational theorists and researchers, rather than work with a notion of social class actually operationalise and utilise notions of social inequality and stratification. On the bases of skill, occupational status and income, individuals are ascribed to various strata that are then taken as proxy social classes. Hill and Cole (2001) are meticulous in describing this as the basis for the UK Registrar General's classifications of social class and other academic definitions and frameworks. When we, as social and educational theorists and researchers or political pollsters, utilise these classifications we become 'box people' too. We collude in the attempt to mirror, or map, in true Ptelomaic fashion, the relative social statuses of persons. As educational theorists and researchers we then use these categories of persons - previously rated on a range of factors indicating relative dis/advantage - to attempt to 'explain' (more mapping in reality) what is going on in education, e.g. qualifications outcomes, higher education participation rates and the like.

At one level, the whole process is incredible. Having ranked people on a range of dis/advantage it seems strange that we might then expect those in the lower strata to rise above all these and perform well in other areas. Of course, some do - there are always exceptions - and the rate at which people buck debilitating trajectories expected of them can be measured. But on the grand scale, research that 'discovers' that those in the upper strata tend, on average, to do better than those in the lower strata (in education, for example) almost qualifies as 'non-research'. Thus, papers delivered at a conference on social class and education at King's College London in the summer of 2000 were not saying anything really new or different from what was being written on class and education in the 1980s, or even the 1960s. Only historical details were different. Working class school students seem to be doomed; they appear to be perennially prone to 'underachievement' in education relative to their more privileged middle class peers. But it's a rigged game. Of course, there is some value in trying to explain why it is that middle class pupils do better on average; such studies tell us things about the constitution of capitalist society and the generation of market inequalities. They can also generate explanations regarding the origins of social inequality, worth and validation, for example (see Rikowski and Rikowski 2002). However, I would maintain they tell us nothing about social class, for, as was noted earlier, the base categories are not social class ones at all but categories of social stratification founded on the combination and aggregation of various measures of social inequality and relative social status.

To get a real grip on social class and education we need to jump out of the mainstream, to get our feet muddy on the banks of Marxist theory. From a Marxist perspective, what is so wrong with the neo-Weberian view of social class that predominates in educational theory and research and its technicist accompaniment, the Registrar General's classification of occupations? Dave Hill and Mike Cole (2001) summarise some of the key points. As they note, the occupations at the heart of conventional social 'class' categories are based 'not only on income, but also on notions of status and associated consumption patterns and life-styles derived from the work of sociologist Max Weber' (p.29). Furthermore note Hill and Cole, 'while the classifications may be interesting sociologically', Marxists would criticise them on three grounds (ibid.). The first shortcoming of conventional neo-Weberian outlooks on social class is that:

...they ignore, indeed hide, the existence of the capitalist class - that class which dominates society economically and politically. This class owns the means of production (and the means of distribution and exchange) - i.e. they are the owners of factories, transport companies, industry, finance, the media. In other words, these consumption-based patterns mask the existence of capitalists, including the super rich and the super powerful: the ruling class. (Hill and Cole, 2001, pp.29-30)

Secondly, and more significantly for Hill and Cole:

...consumption-based classifications of social class gloss over and hide, the fundamentally antagonistic relationship between the two main classes in society, the working class and the capitalist class. In Marxist analysis, the working class includes not only manual workers but also millions of white-collar workers - such as bank clerks and supermarket check-out operators ... whose conditions of work are similar to those of manual workers. They are exploited in fundamentally the same way as are the manual working classes. While it may be of sociological interest to be informed of, for example, the different leisure pursuits of, say, bank managers and building labourers, research based on occupational hierarchies tell us little, if anything about the relationship between social classes. This relationship, following Marx, is based fundamentally on conflict generated out of the conflicting interests of workers and capitalists. (Hill and Cole, 2001, p.30 - first emphasis mine, second emphasis original)

Hill and Cole's third criticism of neo-Weberian and technicist conceptions of 'class' is that: segmenting the working class, they both hide the existence of a working class and they also serve the purpose of 'dividing and ruling' the working class - that, by segmenting different groups of workers, for example white collar and blue collar workers, and workers in work and the so-called 'underclass' workers. These subdivisions of the working class can be termed class fractions or segments (after Ainley, 1993). Such classifications hide and work to inhibit or disguise the common interests of these different groups comprising the working class. They serve, in various ways, to inhibit the development of a common (class) consciousness against the exploiting capitalist class. (Hill and Cole, 2001, pp.30-31 - my emphasis)

Thus, Hill and Cole's powerful Marxist critique of the mainstream neo-Weberian perspective on social 'class' indicates that this conventional classification is basically ideological in nature. It functions to mask and subvert attempts to analyse class from a critical social scientific perspective concerned with the constitution of capitalist society. Mainstream views on 'class' fail to capture it as a concept that expresses the deep antagonism within the heart of capitalist society. However, as Sanders, Hill and Hankin (1999) note, 'whilst the class war still rages the working class in general has been ... demobilised and only the capitalist class knows itself to be in uniform' (p.105). Conventional 'class' analysis and research misreads the nature and significance of 'class', whilst capital oppresses us and human representatives of capital cheerfully (with their stock options, bonuses and public sector rip-offs) plot the extension of capital's rule over society. Mainstream analyses of class fail to engage this oppression.

This avoidance of class as an antagonistic relation, the life and death struggle of capital and labour and its existence as a specific, historical form of oppression, also plays itself out through epistemology. Indeed, as Werner Bonefeld (1999) has demonstrated, mainstream outlooks on 'class' run counter to Marx's anti-epistemological outlook (p.1). Bonefeld notes that, for Marx, theoretical problems can be explained with reference to human practices and understandings of these practices. On the other hand, notes Bonefeld:

Epistemological thought ... is premised on a dualist conception between subject and object. It assumes that the human subject stands external to its objective conditions. Epistemological thought goes together with positivist methodology. Here, the method of the natural sciences is applied to the study of social phenomena. Empirically given 'facts' are emphasised and accepted as showing the raw 'sense-data' through which reality is assumed to 'exist'. Both epistemological and positivist thought ask how knowledge can be gained of the 'objective' world. The scientific tools applied to gain this knowledge include thought experiments, the reduction of complex social relationships to neat classificatory definitions and the schematisation of social phenomena into formal registers that seek to 'order' information and data. (1999, pp.1-2)

Epistemological and positivist thought has also infected Marxism, argues Bonefeld. It has invaded Marxist class analyses specifically, as exemplified in the writings of Erik Olin Wright and Nico Poulantzas as progenitors of Analytic Marxism. Bonefeld writes:

In this tradition, the theory of 'class' is infected by epistemological and positivist thought. It emphasises class in terms of 'raw sense data' and approaches this data through the lenses of the so-called objective laws of capitalist development. (Bonefeld, 1999, p.2)

Bonefeld labels this form of 'Marxism' as 'sociological and structuralist Marxism' (ibid.). This outlook seeks to provide a watertight definition of 'class' so that persons can then be allocated to this or that 'class' and exhaustively studied as representatives of particular classes. This procedure easily falls prey to the postmodernist critique of 'class', that the study of individuals, with their fragmented, diversified and fluxing 'selves' invalidates any such groupings of people. Further, disjunctures on the bases of identity, consciousness, lifestyle and so on and the notion of 'working class interests' make it easy for postmodernists to dismiss 'class' as anything more than a modernist remnant.

Bonefeld's argument against defining class, the preliminary step in the Left positivist appropriation of the concept, is of a different order to the postmodernists' flippant rejection of its existence based on their aesthetic dislike of dualisms. Bonefeld's argument is important and goes right to the heart of the 'problem of class':

'Definitions' depend on pre-existing notions of social, economic, and political structures ... Definitions seek to render intelligible the observable 'facts' of life without conceptualising the social constitution and therewith historical meaning of what is observed. In short, definitions concern themselves with the thing-in-itself and endorse this thing as having its own mode of existence, laws of development, and crisis-ridden tendencies. All of this, the uncritical embrace of facts and the notion of objective laws, reports on and is informed by a reified world. ... [For] definitions support no more than positivist and nominalist conceptions of class. (Bonefeld, 1999, pp.3-4)

As John Holloway (1999) notes, this procedure fetishises 'class', objectifies it and presents it as a static entity (though its atoms, individuals, circulate and change position, i.e. social mobility). The outcome is that:

While favouring a vocabulary with a progressive ring, such as class position, class alliance etc., all and everything is treated theoretically in terms of philosophical convictions. It is well known that, in the world of philosophical convictions, unfavourable conditions need not be changed. All that is required is to interpret them more favourably. This, I suppose underlies the commensurability between the Marxist sociology of class definitions and the much more friendly bourgeois research projects of social stratification. (Bonefeld, 1999, p.4)

The unspoken alliance between the classical Marxist theory of class (such as in Erik Olin Wright and Nicos Poulantzas) and mainstream sociological theories is founded on the basis that they both rest upon a 'box person' mentality. Whilst the 'box person' outlook is easy to see in social class frameworks such as the Registrar General's and those emanating from mainstream sociologists (such as John Goldthorpe), it is also present within Marxist theorisations of class. The classic case is the work of Carchedi (1975), who attempts to chart the 'new middle class' in terms of functional roles deriving from capital accumulation. As these roles are variegated, the previously homogenous 'middle class' is fragmented and 'classes' proliferate at an alarming rate in Carchedi's analysis. He pulls back at a later stage in his exposition and attempts to re-aggregate and identify the middle class as a homogenous group (see his definition, p.47). But this just causes unease regarding his forced attempt to re-homogenise the middle class. What if there are many 'middle classes'? As Bonefeld notes, it is hugely embarrassing for sociological and structuralist Marxism that there also appears to be 'many groups that do not fit into either of the two class, the working class and the capitalist class' (1999, p.7).

Bonefeld (1999) argues that he is against 'definitions' of class and emphasises that 'the comprehension of 'class' and therewith 'class struggle' can go forward only in and through a critique of 'capital' as the dominant production relation' (p.3 - my emphasis). For Bonefeld, this entails theorising class as an aspect of the critique of political economy, and, in the process, providing a critique of class. Thus:

The aim, then, is to go beyond the notion of class as a thing-in-itself and to see class as a constitutive social relationship that exists in and against itself. 'Class' is not an affirmative concept but a critical concept. Such an understanding objects to the glorification of the working class, refuses to espouse it uncritically, and rejects any attempt to tailor theoretical understanding according to the supposed historical role of the working class. (Bonefeld, 1999, p.4)

Class theory, argues Bonefeld is not a 'flag-waving exercise' (1999, p.5). It is not morally committed to viewing contemporary society through working class eyes or from the 'standpoint' of the working class. Class theory is an aspect of the exploration of the constitution of capitalism that is premised upon a project for its abolition. It is an integral part of Marxism as a theory against capitalist society, and not just a theory of it. Class theory is therefore concerned with the abolition of class (Marx's position) and the opening up of human history from the desolation of its pre-history (Dinerstein and Neary, 1998). Class is a critical concept when it is used as an element in the critique of capital, and the critique of itself - of its own social existence. In this paper, I follow Bonefeld in this enterprise and for a truly critical analysis of class I would endorse what he has to say in the rest of his paper.3 My task differs from that of Bonefeld's, however. Whereas he goes on to provide a general critique of class, my aim here is to delineate the relation between education and class, or, more accurately, education as an aspect of the class relation. For this, a more specific form of critique is required which this paper goes on to articulate.

Before moving on to the main arguments of the paper, it should be noted that a critique of social inequality is not deemed unimportant. The gross social inequalities we witness today (between individuals within the UK, between social status groups and between the advanced and developing countries) are widening and have intensified over the last 20 years. The critique and analysis of these is crucial. However, my argument on social inequality is similar in form as to that on class: in general, the explanation of social inequality has not been undertaken as a form of critique of existing social relations. In this sense, it has not been embarked upon seriously. At stake is the uncovering of the forces that generate social inequality. This type of analysis is not content just to describe and tabloidise (in postmodernist or liberal Left mode) the empirical manifestations of these forces as concrete forms of social inequality - the fare of much mainstream sociology. Such a critique must go to the roots of capitalist society, specifically provide an exploration of how labour-power values are both formed on the basis of exchange-value (equality) and simultaneously disrupted (to yield inequality). But this analysis will be provided elsewhere, for the specific case of gender inequality (Rikowski and Rikowski, 2002).


3. We Are Everywhere - in Capital's Social Universe4

The reflecting facades of capital have been dulled for the day. The sound of tills and rustle of plastic shopping bags, the roar of cars and buses has been replaced by the stomach rumbling clatter of police helicopters flying overhead. An unusual stillness fills the streets that are normally havens of economic growth. (We Are Everywhere, Night Thoughts on May 1st - Oxford Street at, 2001, p.1 - on the May Day Monopoly events in London).

We are led to believe, by a system intent on milking every drop of our energy for its own ends, that ambition, by its very nature, makes us exciting and interesting. (Julie Burchill, Busy doing nothing, 2001, p.7 - my emphasis).

Labour is the living, form-giving fire; it is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, as their formation by living time. (Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1858, p.361)

We live in the social universe of capital. The idea of a 'social universe' can be traced back to Moishe Postone's Time, Labor, and Social Domination (p.259) and ultimately back to the social cosmology of Karl Marx's Doctoral Dissertation of 1840 (Neary, 2000b). For both Postone and Marx, 'social universe' refers not to some abstract and a-historical ontological presuppositions underpinning the "social" but to a particular, historical form of social life. This is Karl Marx's social universe: the social universe of capital that is the subject of the three volumes of Marx's Capital, the Grundrisse and early works such as the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

The substance of capital's social universe is value (Neary, 2000a; Neary and Rikowski, 2000; Rikowski, 2000c). Or, more specifically, capital's existence rests on surplus value - i.e. value over-and-above that as represented by the value of labour-power that guarantees social reproduction of the worker (and is represented by the wage). For Marx (1867a), necessary labour is labour that corresponds to the value that goes towards the subsistence needs of workers (and these vary historically within capitalism). Surplus labour is labour over-and-above necessary labour, and this labour creates the surplus value on which rests the capitalist's profit. Thus, the working day, week, month etc. is split into two parts: socially necessary labour and surplus labour, the latter producing surplus value. In the labour process, in the first instance, value is incorporated in commodities (which may be concrete, material commodities or immaterial commodities). This is why Marx begins his analysis of capital in the first volume of Capital (1867a) with the commodity - the 'economic cell-form' of capital (Marx, 1867b). However, as Moishe Postone notes (1996), Marx makes it clear in Capital (1867a) and in the Grundrisse (1858) that labour performed in the labour process is not the only constituent of value. First, there is the value stored up in the means of production (constant capital) that is transferred on a constant basis into the new commodities as workers labour in the labour process. Second, science and its application - the commodification of scientific knowledge in machines and automated processes - also transfers value into new commodities through the 'appliance of science' in the labour process. However, these forms of previous, dead labour cannot increase the amount of value within the totality of the system; they rest on past (physical and mental) labour being performed. Only new, original labour allows the expansion of value through the production of surplus value.

Surplus value is created by two main methods. First, the absolute form of surplus value involves extension of the working day. This has the effect of lengthening the time workers engage in surplus labour after they have performed the labour necessary to meet their own subsistence needs. With the alternative method, the production of relative surplus value, the aim is to raise worker productivity so that necessary labour is diminished. The application of machinery and automation (and today computer-controlled processes) to the labour process speeds up production so that necessary labour is reduced. There are other sub-species of relative surplus value production not picked up by Marx, but which are in vogue today. For example, there is the social drive to increase the quality of human labour-power (the capacity to labour) through education and training so that the quantity and quality of labour are raised. This also reduces necessary labour and leads to a relative increase in surplus labour time and hence surplus value (Rikowski, 1999, 2000b).

In its first form, capital is surplus value. It is this surplus value that also provides the foundation for state revenues (through taxation), myriad forms of rent, interest and paper forms of ownership but also, most importantly of all, capitalist profit. In sum, surplus value is the foundation for the capitalist form of civilisation, which is ultimately based upon our labour, which in turn rests on our capacity to labour (our skills, knowledges, physical abilities, work and social skills), our labour-power.

Capital is value in motion (Kay and Mott, 1982). As John Holloway has noted, "capital moves" (1995) through its constant transformations into other forms of capital (money form, state form and so on) and also through its loops into the production of itself through further production cycles. The flows and movements of capital are simultaneously those of labour: labour moves too (Neary, 2000a). Firstly, on the basis of the generation of value and surplus-value in the labour process (so labour moves in the form of value, or as the value-form of itself) but also as the mediator of capital's various transformations (Postone, 1996). Capital moves, but not of its own accord: the mental and physical capabilities of workers (labour-power) enable these movements through their expression in labour. Our labour enables the movements of capital and its transformations (e.g. surplus value into various forms of capital).

The social universe of capital then is a universe of constant movement; it incorporates and generates a restlessness unparalleled in human history such that 'All that is solid melts into air' (Marx and Engels, 1848, p.83). Furthermore, the social universe of capital moves as a totality. It is set on a trajectory, the 'trajectory of production' as outlined by Moishe Postone (chapter 9, 1996). This trajectory is powered not simply by value but by the 'constant expansion of surplus value' (Postone, 1996, p.308 - my emphasis). The consequences of the particular form and direction of the movement of capital's social universe are momentous and tragic:

The modern capitalist world, according to Marx, is constituted by labor, and this process of social constitution is such that people are controlled by what they make. Marx analyzes capital as the alienated form of historically constituted, species-general knowledge and skills and, hence, grasps its increasingly destructive movement toward boundlessness as a movement of objectified human capacities that have become independent of human control. (Postone, 1996, p.384)

The trajectory of capital's social universe is based on a form of movement that forces it to continually crash against the limits of its own constitution and existence. It is movement out of control (Hudis, 2000). As Marx notes, 'the goal of the economic system is the unhappiness of society' (1844, p.26). The tragedy of labour is that this 'destructive movement towards boundlessness' rests on our skills, our knowledge and the transformation of our capacity to labour, our labour-power, into labour. The whole movement is powered by, and is dependent upon, our labour. All the transformations and circuits undertaken as aspects of that movement whose integument is the social reproduction of capital (capital accumulation), are dependent upon our labour. Hence, within the social universe of capital, wherever capital is, we are there - aiding, abetting and nurturing its development. Within the social universe of capital we are everywhere it (capital) is, holding its hand as it bites us.

As the social force within its own universe capital cannot exist without us. Neither can it escape its own social universe to become capital as 'not-capital' (no matter how fast it zips around the globe in its computerised, virtual money-form). However, labour can become labour as not-capital; labour unlocked from its value-form. This is a future with a future, a future that is possible for us on the basis of the implosion of capital's social universe.

In its first incarnation in the capitalist labour process, value is incorporated within some material "things", in commodities; though it can be created through the production of immaterial commodities too (Lazzarato, 1996; Dinerstein and Neary, 1998; Burford, 2000). Neither should value, as the substance of capital's social universe, be viewed as some kind of 'stuff', some material substratum. It is, after all, a social substance. As Marx noted in the Preface to the First German Edition of Capital (1867b): 'In the analysis of economic forms, ... neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both' (p.19). There are no 'value mountains' that we can observe in European Union 'value warehouses' either! 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.).

As a form of social energy, however, value is born out of the transformation of human physical and mental energy into the historical, specific form of social energy that is value. This birth accompanies the transformation of labour-power into labour within the capitalist labour process. One form of energy (human, physical and mental) is transformed into another (social), that then undergoes a multitude of transformations (to capital then to the various forms of capital and revenue etc.) that power capitalist civilisation.

Recent work by Michael Neary (2000b) has added significantly to our understanding of the cosmology of capital, the nature of capital's social universe. Neary notes that it is clear that Marx thought about his work cosmologically. Marx held that the law of value as delineated in his major work, Capital, was like the law of gravity. On Neary's analysis:

... the law of gravity to which he [Marx] was eluding was Newton's law. [And] what he could not know was that his elaboration of the law of value was in fact in advance of the science of the day and anticipated the revolutionary ways in which Einstein's theories of relativity and gravity recomposed our notions about the relationships between time, space, matter and energy. (Neary, 2000b, p.10, cf. chapter 3, Theory and Relativity in Neary, 1997).

The crucial point about gravity for Albert Einstein was that it was not a self-contained power but was constituted as a 'field of force' (Hey and Walters, 1997). The argument here is that value, within the social universe of capital, constitutes a social force field analogous to gravity as a force field within the known physical universe. Neary indicates that:

For Einstein, gravity is not force acting between bodies. It is an energy field created by matter, itself the result of the distortion of time and space affected by the intensification of the density of frozen quantities of matter. These distortions create paths along which movement occurs and also the way in which matter in that movement maintains itself in a solid state. (Neary, 2000b, p.11)

Following the argument through, value is a social energy field whose effects as a social force are mediated by the movements of capital (in its various forms) and the social relations between labour and capital. These latter, their movements in fact, condition the social distortions within capital's social universe, its constant disruptions and perturbations.

Social phenomena within capital's social universe are neither self-sustaining nor constitute stable entities. Furthermore, the social energy field (value) is constantly at risk of implosion. We ensure its maintenance. This is the tragedy of our existence within capital's social universe. For 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. Thus: the existence of the substance (value as social energy) that constitutes capital's social universe depends upon our labour. As Harry Cleaver notes:

Capital can never win, totally once and for all. It must tolerate the continued existence of an alien subjectivity which constantly threatens to destroy it. (Cleaver in Neary, 1997, p.25)

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. Labour-power, the capacity to labour (or labour capacity) is the primordial form of social energy within capital's social universe. It is the form of social energy that is the starting point for a whole series of transformations into labour, value, and capital (including its various forms) - indeed the social energy that powers social life. Labour-power, when transformed into labour in the capitalist labour process, has the capacity to generate value and, at a certain point (when value to equal to the social reproduction of the labourer is attained, as represented in the wage), surplus value - the first form and life-blood of capital. Marx's makes this clear in the Grundrisse when he notes that:

What the free worker sells is always nothing more than a specific, particular measure of force-expenditure; labour capacity as a totality is greater than every particular expenditure. (Marx, 1858, p.464 - my emphasis)

Although value is the substance of capital's social universe, it is labour-power expended in the form of abstract labour (labour independent of its particular and specific qualities, i.e. its use value aspect) that is the substance of value. For Marx, abstract labour is not a particular type of labour distinct from observable, concrete labour. Labourers don't do a bit of concrete labour, then do some 'abstract' labour! There is no temporal duality involved. Rather, the singular labour expended within the capitalist labour process is expressed in a dual mode: it is simultaneously concrete labour (the qualitative, use value aspect of labour), and abstract labour (the quantitative, value aspect of labour). The social constitution of abstract labour - the processes and transformations that condition labour in the capitalist labour process as incorporating an abstract aspect - rest on an analysis of socially necessary labour-time. This analysis is not pursued here (for more see Neary, 1997; Neary, 2000a, 2000b; Neary and Taylor, 1998; Neary and Rikowski, 2000). The key point is that abstract labour is a 'real abstraction'; it is not a mental generalisation. Labour in capitalist society has an abstract aspect and is expressed as such (i.e. abstractly, as well as concretely). On this basis, Marx argues that:

The substance of value is and remains nothing more than expended labour-power - labour independent of its particular useful character - and value production is nothing but the process of this expenditure. (Marx, 1878, p.462)

Value's substance is labour-power, and the fact that labour-power resides within the personhoods of labourers, and is therefore under the sway of potentially hostile wills (a hostility fuelled by the antagonism between labour and capital), marks labour-power as capital's weakest link. Labour-power has to be coaxed, cajoled, manipulated or forced (sometimes accompanied by the threat or use of violence - symbolic or physical) into existence, i.e. transformed into labour by representatives of capital. As Marx notes:

... the labourer must be ... compelled to work in excess of the [necessary] time, and this compulsion is exerted by capital. (Marx, 1863b, p.406 - original emphasis)

For surplus value to emerge, workers must be forced to produce more value than covers their subsistence that defines socially necessary labour. The existence of the social universe of capital and its maintenance and expansion rests on our creative powers being expressed as a social force that is compelled to flow, as labour for value-generation. But there is a sting in the tale.

Tragically, the worker's labour-power, her creative force that is transformed into actual labour within the labour process, and that rests upon acts of will or consent (however minimal), produces value and then surplus value that assumes mastery over labour-power and its possessor - the labourer. Labour-power as a social force that is expended in the process of value-production is then dominated by its own creation, and as labour-power flows throughout personhood this form of domination becomes the domination of individual workers, and indeed all workers, by capital. Viewed in this light, labour-power, despite its fantastic creative powers when energised in capitalist production, becomes an abominable commodity: it is the social force that generates its own master - capital. This is made clear by Marx:

For not only has he [the worker] produced the conditions of necessary labour as conditions belonging to capital; but also the value-creating possibility, the realization [Verwertung] which lies as a possibility within him, now likewise exists as surplus value, surplus product, in a word as capital, as master over living labour capacity, as value endowed with its own might and will, confronting him in his abstract, objectless, purely subjective poverty. (Marx, 1858, p.453 - my emphases)

Our creation (surplus value) haunts and dominates us, whilst the commodities that incorporate value constitute the vast wealth and mass of consumer products in contemporary society.

The analysis of this section has provided the groundwork for uncovering social class. The next section draws back the cloth and pursues the class relation (as capital relation) throughout the social totality. As we shall discover, the antagonistic relation between capital and labour that rests on a particular form of labour (the value-form) resides not only within the capitalist labour process, the work situation. It exists throughout the whole of capital's social universe. The following section explores this proposition too.


4. The Violent Relation and Economic Cell Forms: uncovering 'class'

On the analysis of the previous section, the generation of capital's social universe, whose substance is value, is based on the antagonistic relation between capital and labour. The class relation is the capital-labour relation, and it forms a violent dialectic that generates value. Human representatives of capital (e.g. owners, managers and shareholders and so on) drive labourers on to produce surplus value so that their profits are maximised. Various forms of worker resistance ensue to limit the depredations of capital in the labour process (e.g. oppressive intensification of work through management strategies), to increase wages to heighten living standards (thus increasing the value incorporated as necessary labour) and enhance working conditions. Hence: the production of value and surplus value is struggle based on antithetical social drives; the relation between capital and labour is class, indeed, is the constitution of class as a social relation of production. Thus, class is the capital relation: the dynamic, contradictory, antagonistic relation that generates and maintains the social universe of capital. No 'class' in this sense implies no capital, and a different social universe.

Traditionally, Marxism has focused on the class struggle at the point of production. Some Marxists make a fetish out of strike statistics (Bonefeld, 1999; Holloway, 1999). If there were no strikes at all this would not mean the termination of class or the class struggle. Strikes constitute only one form of the concretisation of the social antagonism that is at the heart of capitalist society. As capital, with value as its social substance, constitutes a veritable social universe, it is everywhere; and, therefore, the class struggle is everywhere too. The whole social universe is subject to the 'violent relation' between capital and labour. This section seeks to demonstrate this.

Capital's social universe is an expanding one. This expansion takes three main forms. First, spatially (globalisation) as capital fills all known socio-physical space (and this is not just confined to this planet). This is its extension. Secondly, capital expands as the differentiated form of the commodity, through the invention of new types of commodity. It expands through variegated and differentiated examples of itself. This is its differentiation. Thirdly, capital expands through intensification; it deepens and develops within its own domain.

An appropriate example of capital's rapid expansion is what is happening today in education in England. Contemporary education is being capitalised at an increasing speed (Rikowski, 2001c). The World Trade Organisation's (WTO) education agenda is to speed up the capitalisation of education through its privatisation, liberalisation and marketisation (ibid.). In England, this involves capital's extension in particular (into new fields through the Private Finance Initiative, competitive tendering and so on in the UK), differentiation (especially through the development of new information and technology products designed specifically for educational institutions, something universities are themselves engaged in) and intensification. Empirical and historical research could explore these developments; though it is unlikely research funders would stump up the money for Marxist research that seeks to contribute towards changing the world and not just researching it.

On this analysis, Marx was correct to speak of the 'becoming' of capital (1844). The social universe existing today is a specific form of totality in constant, restless development. Capital, as a social force, progressively permeates all that there is, and intensifies its existence wherever it moves. In doing this, it is simultaneously powered by and establishes the class relation. The tragedy is that our labour, already divided against itself, assists at each and every stage in this process of bringing the class relation to life, extending its domain and intensifying its operation. The upside is that we, as labour, also exist not just in capital, but also against capital. Capital's drive for social intensification can be blocked, subverted and delayed (e.g. Seattle late-1999 and the struggle against the WTO). However, the social drive for its expansion re-asserts itself, and if capital could speak directly to us it would always say: "I'll be back! Though perhaps in different clothes".

There are no exceptions to capital's expansion. There are no islands of safety, no special cases. This proposition offends the sensibilities of liberal Left educational theorists, researchers and activists most when it is taken to the limit and 'the human' itself is included. But this final step must be made; in capital's social universe 'the human' is capitalised too. Thus, the concept of 'human capital', rather than being the subject of mirth and derision, rejected as a hopeless 'bourgeois' concept, actually expresses something real and horrific: the capitalisation of the human. Demonstrating how the human becomes a form of capital is massively complex, and as I have done this elsewhere (e.g. Rikowski, 1999, 2000c) I shall not enlarge much on the topic here. The key point is that labour-power, our capacity to labour takes the form of human-capital in capitalist society. As labour-power flows throughout our personhoods, then ergo so does capital. My paper Marx and the Future of the Human (2000c) outlines four additional arguments regarding the capitalisation of humanity. I need only one of the five arguments to be valid to nail the case!

The important point to note is that the class struggle is also within the 'human'. The struggle between the human as capital (and this also implies the incorporation of capital's contradictions into the human too) and the human as 'not-capital' takes place within individuals, intersubjectively and collectively. What is required to get to the bottom of this is a psychology of capital, a psychology that explores capital as a form of the human, and the human as a form of capital. Class within the human can best be viewed as a 'clash of force and drives' within the human that engage with other contradictory drives and social within the totality. These are expressed in and through our "everyday lives". Thus, empirical study of these expressions of the 'class struggle within the human' is possible in principle. Again, it is unlikely that research funders would encourage such subversive research.

The sum total of what has been argued is that the class struggle is everywhere. Only the intensity of the violent relation, the capital relation that constitutes it, differs. This point follows from the proposition that capital develops as a totality, it is a living totality, the world of labour that generates value as the substance of its own existence and expansion. However, the class struggle has another dimension; the rift within labour itself, and it is to this we now turn.

To demonstrate the divide within labour itself, some preliminary work is necessary.5 This work begins where Marx began in the opening sentences of the first volume of Capital: with the commodity.

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)

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 form that can enlighten 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 also incorporated 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 was the condensed 'general form of the product' in capitalist society (ibid., p.148), the 'most elementary form of bourgeois wealth' (Marx, 1863a, p.173), and hence the 'formation and premise of capitalist production' (Marx, 1866, p.1004). Commodities were 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, 1863a), Marx makes it clear that there are two classes or categories of commodities within the social universe of capital:

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

Labour-power was defined earlier in this paper simply as the 'capacity to labour'. Marx has a formal definition of labour-power that is very interesting. This is that labour-power 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. (Marx, 1867a, p.164).

On this definition, labour-power has real social existence when it is transformed within the labour process into actual labour. It has a dual mode of social existence. On the one hand, labour-power exists as a virtual entity (a capacity, a potential) within the labour market, or to be more accurate, the market in labour-power (McNally, 1993). On the other hand, in the capitalist labour process, labour-power has real existence; labourers call forth and activate an array of capacities, attributes and capabilities within their personhoods as they set about the process of labour. Hence:

Labour itself, in its immediate being, in its living existence, cannot be directly conceived as a commodity, but only labour-power, of which labour itself is the temporary manifestation. (Marx. 1863a, p.171 - my emphasis)

Finally, the 'mental capabilities' include also the pertinent work and social attitudes and personality traits as constituents of labour-power in action within the labour process (Rikowski, 1999).

Though Marx distinguishes 'two great categories' of commodities, he was at pains to point out that they have the same status insofar as the value of both is determined by the quantity of labour-time expended in their production (Marx, 1863b, p.403). The two categories of 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, 1863a, p.164 - original emphasis)

Later on in Part One of Theories of Surplus Value, 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, 1863a, 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 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. He rules out immaterial commodities. Without going deeper into the issue here, I would maintain that a really radical and significant 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.

The key question flowing from the previous discussion on Marx's distinction between the 'two great classes of commodities' (the general class of commodities, and labour-power) is 'why is this distinction so significant today?' Marx reveals the answer in Theories of Surplus Value - Part One (1863a). He indicates that the 'two great classes of commodities' correspond to two classes of labourers. Those producing 'general commodities' can be distinguished from those socially producing labour-power on the basis of value. The former labourers produce value itself (directly), whereas the latter produce the value-creating force (labour-power). Thus, notes Marx, 'the former class will produce immediate, material wealth consisting of commodities, all commodities except those which consist of labour-power itself' (1863a, p.161, - original emphasis) - though here Marx fails to note that labour-power is a commodity too.

Marx presents the rift in labour as differentiation between labourers. He assumes there are two types of labourer. There are those that produce value in the labour process that is incorporated in commodities, on the one hand. On the other hand, there are those that socially produce labour-power (e.g. teachers), or maintain labour-power (e.g. health workers) or socially produce the labour-powers of the future (e.g. those who labour in the home, the family, and those such as child-minders). The reality of capitalist social existence indicates that labourers take on both characteristics. Thus, the great rift is within labour as a form of social existence within capitalist society, not between two great groups of labourers. The split is founded on the basis of a relation internal to labour itself: labour as value-producer and labour as labour-power developer. This relation is internal to all labour, an aspect of the social existence of all labourers.6 This point is crucial for political clarity.

The great rift within labour, therefore, is carved out on the basis of whether labour produces value directly (within the labour-process), or whether it produces the single commodity that generates value itself. But how can this cause a practical split within the working class in relation to anti-capitalist politics? What are its effects? To my knowledge, these questions have never been raised in this form and within the context of the sort of theorisation provided by this paper. However, I would wish to argue that the great rift within labour on the basis of value and the commodity debilitates labour in terms of the labourers forming a working class (themselves as labour) against both overt human representatives of capital and themselves as capital. This realisation was brought home to me by something Tony Benn said last night (Benn, 2001) at a book launch in London.7

Benn raised the issue of strikes in the public sector, and whether strikes were a valid method of resisting the capitalisation of public services such as education through privatisation, Best Value, the Private Finance Initiative, tendering out services and other methods. He argued forcefully that there was a difference between going on strike against private sector employers and public sector workers going on strike. The difference was, argued Benn, that the former hurt mainly the capitalist employers, whereas the latter affected workers themselves. This sets workers against workers, as in the Winter of Discontent of 1978-79. On the basis of the analysis of this paper, this oversimplifies and muddles the issues. Furthermore, it also raises a large strategic question.

First, on the basis of the analysis here it is not accurate to say that there are two types of worker. It is not that there is one group that socially produces, maintains and reproduces labour-power (the commodity that generates value as it is activated in the labour process), and another group that in the act of producing general commodities simultaneously produces value. Workers producing general commodities are also implicated in their own labour-power production and the labour-power production of others. In the first instance, we have the fact that workers in all labour processes socially produce their own labour-power "automatically" as they labour (Marx, 1863c, p.148; 1865, p.292), and this includes private sector workers. In the second instance, there are various forms of work-based training, apprenticeship, quality circles and other modes of labour-power development internal to the enterprise.

Second, even it we make the superficial private/public sector split, we cannot simply say that only the former, when they strike, hurt employers. As the Fuel Protests indicated, strikes by some private sector workers - such as those in the energy industry - can very quickly harm others (e.g. in the health service and the patients it serves). On the other hand, strikes by public service librarians do not generally threaten workers with death, disease or significant harm. Of course, the energy industry was previously in the public sector and this raises a strategic question for Benn's position. On his logic, if all labourers worked in the private sector then only employers would be penalised. If this is so, then should we as labour encourage the privatisation of public services so that only employers are harmed when we strike? By the same token, is it only possible to unify labour when all publicly owned services are privatised? The nonsense of this shows the danger of setting up the public/private sector division when the more fundamental division is between those producing general commodities and those socially producing (and maintaining and reproducing) labour-power itself. But this is a rift internal to all labourers that is expressed and experienced in our "everyday lives", and, once again, could become the subject of a dissenting and critical research programme.

The following brief section spells out how education fits into the arguments so far advanced. It follows from what has been said that capitalist education and training are implicated in the constitution of class as the relation between capital and labour. This is because capitalist education and training constitute key processes within the social production of labour-power in capitalism today. The following section pinpoints the significance of this.


5. Education and the Tragedy of Labour: social class and education

The social production of labour-power was a process that Marx hardly recognised. Its social existence was very hazy in his time, with state schooling just emerging. Indeed, its lack of social definition in Marx's day led him to conclude that:

Labour as a social and natural force does not develop within the valorization process as such, but within the actual labour process. It presents itself therefore as a set of attributes that are intrinsic to capital as a thing, as its use-value. (1866, p.1056)

Thus: the labour process itself is a force that develops labour-power. Marx (1863c, p.148; and 1865, p.292) distinguishes between the costs of production of specific labour-powers and their reproduction on occasion, but the social production of labour-power remains shadowy. I have argued elsewhere (Rikowski, 1999) that there are basically two aspects to the social production of labour-power:

First, there is the development of labour power potential, the capacity to labour effectively within the labour process. Secondly, there is the development of the willingness of workers to utilise their labouring power, to expend themselves within the labour process as value-creating force. This is manifested in all the studies that pinpoint work attitudes as the most sought after and significant attribute of workers in recruitment studies, and the exhortations of employers that schools must produce 'well motivated' young people, with sound attitudes to work and recruits who are 'work-ready' and embody 'employability' - though these points would need to be driven home through focused empirical and historical studies. (p.77)

The social production of labour-power refers to a process that is fragmented in capitalist society. Today, it typically includes compulsory education. However, it can include training (on- and off-the-job), various forms of personal development programmes, further and higher education, computer-based training and many other elements. It also develops through labour itself, in the labour process - as Marx notes above. This last is labour-power's "automatic" production, though various 'learning company' strategies are attempts to formalise this.

In mainstream sociology, education and training are approached as sites of the production of multiple dimensions of social, market and economic status and identities - including these as they relate to social class. Here, however, the focus is on the social production of the commodity that makes the class relation possible, and hence makes capitalism possible: labour-power. The transformation of labour-power into labour in the capitalist labour process creates value, capital's social substance. Education and training, in turn, shape and develop labour-power. They are vital supports to, and developers of, the class relation, the violent capital-labour relation that is at the core of capitalist society and development.

However, because education and training socially produce labour-power, and there are real limits to this process8, this is a source of labour's strength as well as its tragic predicament. On the latter, the tragedy of labour results from the fact that labour creates its own opposite (capital) that comes to dominate it (Postone, 1996). Indeed, it creates something that permeates its own soul in the form of human capital. On the other hand, teachers and trainers are implicated in socially producing the single commodity - labour-power - on which the whole capitalist system rests. This gives them a special sort of social power. They work at the chalkface of capital's weakest link, labour-power. Hence, they have the capacity to work with Red Chalk (McLaren, 2001; Cole et al, 2001): to open up visions of alternatives to capitalism in the classroom, or at least provide vital critiques of its violent class relation and market inequalities. Teachers are in a special position regarding their capacity to disrupt and to call into question the capitalist class relation. Furthermore, teachers can also insert principles of social justice into their pedagogy, principles that are antithetical to the generation of the class divide and also market and social inequalities (Cole and Hill, 1999).9 This is essential, for as Peter McLaren (2000) has argued, the task of forging new forms of pedagogy that clash against capital's limited forms of social life involves making 'liberation and the abolition of human suffering the goal of the educative enterprise itself' (p.185). For:

Regardless of the personal, epistemological, ontological, and moral paths that we choose to take as educators, at some point we have to come face-to-face with the naked reality of capitalist social relations in both local and global contexts. We cannot ignore these relations, and if we are to engage in a revolutionary educational praxis, we need to do more than rail against the suffering and tribulations of the oppressed and instead seek ways of transforming them. (McLaren, 2000, p.190)

Conclusion: education as an aspect of the class relation

Following Bonefeld (1999), I have approached the issue of 'class' as part of the critique of capital and its value-form of labour. I have also touched on the critique of human capital, the human form of capital. There are indeed 'two great classes', but these are not classes of persons. They are labour and capital as aspects of the personhoods of all in capitalist society.

This makes the question of "who is to blame?" for capitalism's evils a difficult one. If we, including Bill Gates with his 58 billion fortune, are both capital and labour, then the dissolution of capital cannot just be the abolition of private property and the simultaneous termination of a distinct group of people, the 'capitalists'. The situation is made more complex by the fact that the class relation runs through our personhoods. It is internal to us; we are labour, and we are capital. We are social beings incorporating antithetical social drives and forces. This fact sets off contradictions within our lives, and their solution can only come from the disintegration of ourselves as both capital and labour and our emergence as a new, non-capitalised life-form (Rikowski, 1999).

Secondly, there is a rift within labour between labour as value-creator and labour as labour-power developer, the latter including labourers' development of their own labour-powers. However, this too is a division that runs across and through us all; it is not a division between persons. This points towards what we are as workers more than towards our divisions as labourers. As Marx and Engels put it in The Holy Family in 1844:

The question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat at the moment considers as its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do. (in Taylor, 1999, p.1).

It is true though, that in terms of the object of labour, the commodities involved (general, or labour-power production, maintenance and social reproduction) generate two different categories of labour - and hence Marx held this was the basis of two classes of workers. The consequences of this have only been touched upon in this paper, and future work will explore this point.

Education is an aspect of the class relation; it is involved in generating the living commodity, labour-power whose consumption in the labour process is a necessary condition for the social existence of the class relation, the relation of capital-labour in contemporary capitalism. This is tragic, but also yields educators a special sort of social power, for education also has:

...the potential to provide a spark that can ignite the desire for revolutionary democratic social transformation throughout the world. (Paula Allman, Education on Fire! - 2001b, p.10)

In this way, education can be the foundation of a politics of human resistance to the capitalisation of humanity and also one of the forces playing a key role in the development of forms of labour not tied to the value-form.



1. Furthermore, the Earth itself must be 'made safe' for capital accumulation. Rather than tackle the fundamental factors causing our planet to overheat, NASA engineers are exploring whether the Earth's orbit can be moved so it can cool down a tad (McKie, 2001). The idea is to redirect an asteroid so that it whacks Earth out into a more remote orbit, thus cooling us all down. In this way, capital accumulation and the projects of major corporations - especially energy and transport businesses - are prioritised over tackling the social relations that generate such high-risk strategies.

2. For example, see Hill and Cole (2001), Hill, Sanders and Hankin (2001) and Sanders, Hill and Hankin (1999) for interesting extensions and development of this contrast.

3. Werner Bonefeld's important paper will be published (by Ashgate) in Ana Dinerstein and Michael Neary's edited collection The Labour Debate: An investigation into the theory and reality of capitalist work, in early 2002.

4. This section draws heavily from my recent Guest Lecture in the Sociology of Education at the University of Warwick (Rikowski, 2001a), but most of all from my Fuel for the Living Fire: Labour-Power! (Rikowski, 2001b).

5. The rest of this section owes a lot to extracts adapted from That Other Great Class of Commodities: Repositioning Marxist Educational Theory (Rikowski, 2000b), a paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Conference 2000, University of Cardiff.

6. For excellent discussions on the concept of 'internal relations', see Allman (1999 and 2001a).

7. The book was an edited by Clyde Chitty and Brain Simon (2001), and composed of papers aimed at promoting comprehensive education against New Labour's neoliberal onslaught on education that sponsors privatisation, selection and the business takeover of schools.

8. These limits are discussed in Rikowski (1999). They rest on a number of factors. First, labour-power is a contradictory entity and hence its social production within the 'human' as human capital is limited by these contradictions. Secondly, the social drive to socially produce labour-power is infinite in terms of its quality (Rikowski, 2000b) but this infinite social drive cannot be expressed concretely. Thirdly, there are contradictions between the social production of labour-power and its social reproduction that limits its realisation. Fourthly, the fact that labour-power cannot be detached from humans limits the capitalisation of the human in many ways. The principal one is that the capricious will of the labourer ultimately has sovereignty over labour-power (much to the distaste of representatives of capital who attempt to subsume this too under labour-power, and hence to capitalise the will itself). Fifthly, our social existence as labour against capital, as an entity with drives, motivations and desires of our own places a barrier to the capitalisation of humanity - one that capital continually pushes against.

9. For excellent substantive discussions on pedagogies that seek to realise principles of social justice within secondary schools across curriculum areas in secondary schools see Cole and Hill (1999). For a more general rethinking of education for social justice see Rethinking Education and Democracy (Hillcole Group, 1997).



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Dr. Glenn Rikowski currently teaches GCSE/A-level sociology at the Loxford School for Science & Technology in the London Borough of Redbridge. His latest publication is, The Battle in Seattle: Its significance for education (2001), published by the Tufnell Press, at: Contact:

Acknowledgement: section 3 draws heavily from sections 2 and 3 of Fuel for the Living Fire: Labour-Power! (Rikowski, 2001b), forthcoming in The Labour Debate: An investigation into the theory and reality of capitalist work (Aldershot: Ashgate), edited by Ana Dinerstein and Michael Neary. Thanks to Ashgate Publishing for permission to reproduce material from that article.



This document was added to the Education-line database on 04 January 2002