Stevphen Shukaitis on Wed, 17 Dec 2008 02:01:25 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> No Future

No Future
Paolo Do

from ephemera volume 8 number 3, "university, failed" 
( )

The Productive Centrality of the University in the Age of Cognitive  

Today we often use the concept of "Cognitive Capitalism", or, indeed,  
Post-Fordist production, to denote a profound breakdown that has  
occurred during the last few decades. And when we speak about a  
"society of knowledge" we point out that today knowledge is the new  
tool of capitalist accumulation. Asserting this doesn't mean hiding  
the fact that in the complexity of the contemporary world, we cannot  
observe completely different productive regimes co-existing, as we do  
within the metropolis. Indeed, the majority of work done in a  
metropolis certainly isn't immaterial work: cleaners, janitors,  
salesclerks and storekeepers do not properly perform conceptual or  
symbolic manipulation.

The assertion of the "hegemony" of cognitive labor and immaterial work  
therefore means something else, something very different from a  
quantitative measurement of this or that employment sector. The term,  
indeed, refers to all the work that is done within the metropolis. So  
even though the majority of work done in the metropolis is not  
strictly speaking cognitive, it is nonetheless oriented and addressed  
by the sector of cognitive labor. That is to say, the more prevalent  
forms of work are themselves organized as a function of cognitive  
labour. And it is in this sense that we can speak of the hegemony of  
cognitive labour. It is also in this very same sense that Marx wrote  
about hegemony within the Grundrisse (1993: 106-107).

This term: "hegemony of cognitive labor", underlines the inherent  
arbitrariness of criticisms made concerning the supposedly  
questionable validity of the conceptual differentiations made between  
cognitive or immaterial labor and material or non- cognitive labor.  
These criticisms are to be understood as arbitrary precisely because  
cognitive and immaterial labor is always made up of a material and  
bodily component. And material labor, for its part, is also always  
made up of a cognitive and immaterial content. In this light it is the  
category of material labor, rather than the category of immaterial  
labour, that is problematic.

The concept of "cognitive capitalism" therefore presents us with the  
inherent difficulty of proposing any sort of systematic dichotomy  
between intellectual labor and manual labor, the very dichotomy which  
nonetheless typifies Fordist factory work. It presents us with the  
great challenge of explaining the nature of the new productive  
contemporary metropolitan space.

To accept this concept of "cognitive capitalism", I suggest, is to  
simultaneously accept the assertion that many traditional conceptual  
divisions are no longer adequate to the task of understanding the new  
division of labor within knowledge society. To accept the concept of  
"cognitive capitalism" therefore means that we must find the role of  
capital's command in some other way. And with such a framework in  
mind, we can also see that the function, role and mechanism of many  
contemporary institutions have become completely different.

In this note I want to consider the case of the university. What is  
the university today? Well, if the productive tool is knowledge, if  
immaterial labor and cognitive labor define the hegemony of the  
productive world today, then the university is now the centre of the  
productive realm. Within such an era the university becomes the  
factory, the realm within which economic wealth is produced, much in  
the same way that the manufacturing factory was just such a realm  
decades ago.

You have not misunderstood: the university today produces.

At the spatial level, we can say that the university is inside the  
productive process of modernity, with its circuits of teaching,  
learning, research (and its financialization), copyright management,  
and so on. Such centrality is accompanied by an increasing "becoming  
corporate" of the university itself. More and more today we can speak  
of the corporate university, namely, the public institution that has  
to manage itself in accordance with the efficiency and productivity  
standards of the entrepreneurial world. The rhetoric of new public  
management, investment, accountability, stakeholders and so on, is  
more and more infiltrating the university mechanism. Despite  
widespread resistance to such evolutions, we are faced with a  
pervasive and relatively unchallenged adoption from inside the  
university of this managerial rhetoric.

The question is why? How is this possible? I suppose it is because in  
recent years, corporations are becoming more and more like  
universities, because the Post-Fordist factory has a similar refrain  
to the living substance of the university. The ability to learn and to  
adapt through learning is precisely what the contemporary labour  
market requires. To be able to learn today is to be able to be  
productive today.

And at the temporal level, we can say that the contemporary university  
is oriented towards the present. Universities no longer look towards  
the future since the shaping and training of the workforce is not for  
the future, but for the here and now.

The present is the time of university and education. Here and now. In  
this way, when one speaks about life-long learning it doesn't mean  
postponing the result, the "final date" of the educational process  
until who knows when. The student is therefore no longer an  
unproductive figure that goes to school today and one day, in the  
future, will enter into the labor market. No. The student today is an  
immediately productive figure, and his or her productive time is  
within the here and the now.

The central role of the university today insofar as the valorization  
of capital is concerned is a paradoxical one. For the goal of the  
university nowadays, is to earn well and hence to devalue knowledge.  
The contemporary university is therefore a space which devalues and  
discredits some forms of knowledge over others insofar as potential  
wage and remuneration is concerned. What does this apparent paradox of  
contemporary society mean? Speaking about wealth production, we refer  
to capitalist production. This is a production based on command. So we  
must ask: how is this command over cooperation, the productive  
capacity of the work force, exercised today?

This question is asked because the modern university is by no means a  
free zone, it is certainly not a place where the cooperation and  
productivity of the subject is free. It is also asked because, when  
the university becomes like the factory, we could say the "edu- 
factory", it simultaneously adopts the goal of redefining the command  
of the workforce and of productive power itself. The factory is not  
only a space of production, therefore, it is also a mode of commanding  
production and the work-force. It is not a free space, but rather a  
space where one makes struggles. To say the university is a central  
space of the productive mechanism means, therefore, that it is a space  
where the command of productive power is articulated -- the space where  
it is put to work. The modern university, therefore, is the point of  
application for the forms of command and control which characterizes  
cognitive capitalism. Such is the argument which I will try to make  

Fordist Productive Power and the Distinction between Manual and  
Intellectual Labour

Within this note what I am trying to do, insofar as I am writing about  
the role of the modern university, is to pinpoint the relationship  
between capitalistic command and productive forces. For what is  
capitalism if it is not a social relation? And within this section I  
want to consider the classical distinction between manual and  
intellectual labor characteristic of the Fordist period. By doing  
this, I want to pave the way towards a drafting of what might be  
called a genealogy of capitalism's commanding dispositif. By taking  
such a retrospective leap, therefore, I think that we can put  
ourselves in a position to better understand the nature of the space  
which the university occupies today insofar as what I will go on to  
call the "political economy of knowledge" is concerned.

>From the perspective of the Fordist firm and the Taylorist system of  
work geared towards the mass production of standard commodities, one  
can outline what might be called the real polarization of knowledge.  
Inside of this system of production we encounter a formal separation  
between manual labour, on the one hand, and intellectual labour, on  
the other. This separation, for its part, was accompanied by the  
incorporation of knowledge into machines: the standardization of  
manual labour led to the becoming machinic of labour. The system of  
machines came to take on an almost trans-individuality reality, a  
reality which was at the same time the triumph of fixed capital. This  
triumph is a response to the capitalist's need to assume greater  
control over the productive process, to become free from any sort of  
reliance upon the knowledge possessed by labourers. The gradual  
process of gaining such control was at the same the process which saw  
the transformation of worker knowledge into a set of mechanic  
processes. Industrial capitalism was born de facto within this dual  
process of the disembodiment of knowledge and the becoming  
knowledgeable of machines.

The proliferation of machines as the simultaneous disembodiment of  
knowledge finds its utmost rationality in the Fordist model of  
production where the firm's organizational mechanisms are reflected  
two-fold. On the one hand we have the assembly line, itself composed  
of nothing but un-thinking, manually labouring bodies. And on the  
other hand, we have the planning stage, itself composed of nothing but  
absolutely thinking intellectual labour. This division between a  
purely intellectual component, on the one hand, and a purely bodily  
component is described by Carlo Vercellone as a "control of the  
intellectual power of production" (2006: 41, trans. by the author).  
And this very division between intellectual and manual labor is the  
Fordist ground upon which capitalism's command over the power of human  
production most firmly asserts itself.

Capital's command within the Fordist organization was carried out  
through the control of productive power within this formal division  
between manual and intellectual labor. But this distinction could not  
be maintained indefinitely -- it was a form of control which was  
permanently exercised but also permanently limited. The separation  
between manual and intellectual labor was continually broken by labour  
itself in its very materiality. A separation of the nature of labour  
therefore existed, and was operationalised, but this separation was an  
entirely artificial one. And it was this inherent artificiality itself  
which emerged for all to see during the cases of strikes and whenever  
the assembly line itself was subjected to sabotage. These moments  
portray the separation between intellectual and manual labor in all of  
its artificiality. They show it to be nothing but an attempt to  
control, rather than express, the sheer vitality of human labor power.

The hegemony of intellectual labour therefore emerges and asserts  
itself at the very point where control attempted to eliminate it. In  
the strike, within sabotage, emerges the reality of the knowledge of  
the worker, the knowledge to stop the machine, the knowledge to  
control the production cycle, the knowledge to subvert the supposed  
hierarchy between manual and intellectual labour. The worker therefore  
asserts his knowledge of the production process through sabotage. And  
this knowledge is shown, thereby, to be inherently political rather  
than purely technical.

The very frequency of such confrontations and struggles made it  
impossible to completely separate the categories of manual and  
intellectual labour in a material sense. The frequency of such  
confrontations therefore served to expose such a separation as nothing  
other than a series of attempts to control the power over production.  
This particular control is a parcelled-out specialization and  
repetition of the worker's task itself. It is, to be precise, a  
"political economy of knowledge" something capable of transforming  
knowledge itself.

The university, under Fordist conditions, is therefore an institution  
that produces and reproduces this separation between manual and  
intellectual labour. But under Fordist conditions it is not yet a  
socially pervasive institution since it presupposes a sharp division  
between inside and outside, a division that reproduces the  
unsustainable separation between manual and intellectual labour. The  
university, in this sense, was not immediately productive but rather  
functional to the productive system. It was a site that served to  
reproduce the hegemony of command of the Fordist factory by  
presupposing and therefore perpetuating the formal division between  
manual labour, on the one hand, and intellectual labour, on the other.

Post-Fordist Productive Power: Differential Inclusion and the Mass  

Today we are faced with quite another matter. The classical division  
between intellectual and manual labour is now posed differently, and  
the use of this classical category is less and less useful in  
understanding the new code of capital's command over productive power.

As I have already remarked, the category of "cognitive capitalism"  
presents itself as a useful means of understanding the new division of  
contemporary work beyond this classical distinction between  
intellectual and manual labor. It helps us to understand how the old  
scheme is no longer sufficient. Thereby, it helps us to speak about a  
new geography of capitalist command, about a new device of command  
that starts at the point where the workers' movement had overcome  
Fordist organization, a device which comes into play precisely at the  
point where manual and intellectual labour become indistinguishable  
from one another. We cannot understand the concept of cognitive  
capitalism unless we pass through this notion. Cognitive capitalism is  
not the hegemony of "intellectual" over "Fordist" labor. To repeat the  
point from which this note initially departed, the concept of  
"cognitive capitalism" rather refers to the impossibility of  
separating and distinguishing between material and intellectual labour  
in the traditional, that is Fordist, way.

The workers' struggles of past decades have forced capital's command  
into a new space. From here, where it is more and more difficult to  
distinguish between what is manual and intellectual, one doesn't go  
backwards, that is, one doesn't attempt to nostalgically re-establish  
that which used to be. We rather progress on the basis of that which  
such resistances have produced. Resistance, after all, is that which  
produces such transformations. We might even say that resistance,  
understood in this way, is ontologically productive, that it is  
productive of the contemporary world of things. So today, if we are to  
understand capitalism's workings and its command after the victory of  
the workers' struggle against the factory organized upon the notion of  
the hegemony of intellectual labour, we have to see that the  
progressive intellectualization of work is no longer central. On the  
contrary, the downgrading and discrediting of the workforce itself  
inside of cognitive capitalism is what must command our attention.

So what, then, in light of the above, is the role of the university  
today? Moreover: at the time of the internet which spells the  
breakdown of the university's relative monopoly over knowledge, what  
is the university now for? We can confidently assert that the demise  
of the centrality of the Fordist factory and its division of labour is  
replaced today with the centrality of a university which becomes the  
place of pure command, a place for the prioritization of certain forms  
of knowledge possessed by the workforce. The apparent paradox outlined  
at the beginning of this article has now lost its "paradoxical"  
distinctive character: downgraded knowledge here means that the  
university, as it is today, is more and more a part of a world where  
access to knowledge is free and, therefore, in spite of the university  
itself. Within such a reality of abundant knowledge, the university  
therefore plays the role of authority, the role of discrediting some  
knowledge in comparison with others. In short, the university is the  
contemporary space of command, a site where division and control  
become imposed onto the workforce. The goal of the university today is  
to produce a new differentiation of the workforce and this is done  
through a process of progressively prioritizing sectors of the  
workforce in terms of the knowledge it possesses.

The role of the university has therefore changed quite profoundly for  
the university has become nothing short of a mass university. All  
around us we see an increase in the number of graduates and,  
therefore, an increase in the level of enrolment within universities.  
The number of registered students has been constantly increasing ever  
since the Second World War: this gives us a measure and an idea of how  
much it has changed, of how central it has become.  During the first  
half of the twentieth century, the university was the place of  
reproduction based upon a sharp and strongly defined border between  
inside and outside which was reflected within the already described  
division of the workforce. The university was therefore a device  
capable of exclusion. Indeed, it was an institution largely reliant  
upon exclusion. The effect of exclusions through closed entry  
requirements, for example, was to create a high level of  
stratification between those who are able to afford the costs of  
studying, and a lower stratification for those who were outside (the  
majority). This double stratification and its deep logic of exclusion  
was at the base of the classical distinction between intellectual and  
manual labour, hegemonic in the Fordist era, where the university was  
the place of its production and reproduction.

Today's university has, to a large extent, lost this particular border  
between its inside and its outside by directing its mechanisms towards  
inclusivity. Yet this process of inclusion doesn't outline a  
homogeneous inclusion, it rather operates on the basis of a  
differential inclusion. The segmentation of the workforce happens not  
on the threshold of the university's inside/outside but rather within  
the university's inclusion process itself. It is here that the tools  
for producing hierarchy become cognitive, it is on the basis of these  
tools that we can distinguish between skilled and unskilled labour.  
The likes of the Bologna process therefore reveal to us the nature and  
characteristics of these new filters and borders. We can see within  
such differential inclusion techniques the multiplication and  
production of new and fresh borders inside the workforce and the  
labour marketplace, a sort of generalization of the policies of  
management of migrant labour which becomes extended onto the whole  
population through the Higher Education sector itself.

Put otherwise: as production becomes diffused and the Fordist  
organization's factory loses its hegemony, the command of the  
workforce and of its hierarchy is produced by the university. If the  
distinction between manual and intellectual labour has broken down  
together with its device of exclusion, the modern university's  
inclusion process is not linear but one of differential inclusion.  
Here we find an overlap between techniques of labour hierarchization  
and the tools that become cognitive. The mass university becomes  
inclusive by segmenting and differentiating with respect to some  
disciplines but not others. This sort of differentiation reflects the  
labour world where a segmentation of the workforce is effected between  
whose who can recognize their competences and knowledges as opposed to  
those who cannot. This disciplinary segmentation refers to the  
recognition (or lack thereof) on the part of the competences of workers.

Secondly, the working of the mass university involves a management of  
knowledge the quality of which is immediately connected with the  
relation of the workforce to the marketplace through the collapse of  
temporality in forms of life, work and education. We can easily point  
to internships and other situations where the value of knowledge is  
made null: when one works for free. The internship, widespread across  
Europe, is a clear example of how the university system works towards  
a segmentation that devalues knowledge in terms of wage and  
remuneration. Moreover, the university works as a mode for governing  
and managing an increasing quota of the precarious workforce employed  
in sectors of low skills: the so-called shit jobs of students who  
simply cannot afford their study. This is a real workers' reserve  
army, an army which the university itself organizes and builds up. Far  
from being a beautiful soul outside of the hidden dangers of the  
market, the student is exploited even when not working.

Finally we have the construction of a hierarchy of the university  
itself at a national and international level. This hierarchy sets up  
filters to process a differentiation inside of the workforce where a  
degree from "x university" or "y country" is worth less or more than  
the same degree from another university or country. This hierarchy of  
degrees is applied onto the same international workforce, inside a new  
international division of labour.

Listen to the Sound of Struggle: Self-Education as Autonomous  

To conclude, I'd like to mention some of the recent struggles around  
Europe within the university context. These struggles are not simply  
student struggles. Within the ephemeral borders of the university and  
its productive centrality, the struggles of the past years have taken  
shape differently from the classical university struggles. Indeed,  
these struggles, from the anti-CPE struggle in France in 2006 and  
those against the reform of Sarkozy's government in 2007, onto the  
occupation of Greek and Italian universities in 2005, may be  
understood as the new configuration of a new cycle of struggles, a new  
cycle marked by the complete overcoming of the classical figure of the  

On the one hand the university context becomes central to capitalist  
production. And on the other hand we can find its immediately  
metropolitan dimension.

This is a new cycle of struggles where the main characteristics are  
the common processes of the precarization of life on the one hand, and  
the constant processes of educational policy harmonization (read: the  
attempt to construct a common market for the workforce at the European  
level) on the other. The metropolitan dimension of these university  
conflicts are elements that allow us to read properly what happened in  
our university, our metropolis, to understand that they are the same.  
These battles reconfigure how the struggles for access are struggles  
against filters and blocks of differential inclusion inside the  
workings of the modern university. These struggles displace the  
contemporary production of capitalist command onto productive power  
today and shape the hierarchical process conflicts around the  
students' mobility as a workforce.

To sum up what I've been trying to say here in a few points: I've  
tried to show how today the centrality of the university in the  
productive process entails that a new exploitation of the workforce  
passes through knowledge. That means that knowledge itself is a new  
strategic battlefield of the productive process, that knowledge is the  
battlefield against new sets of exploitation and blackmail. And if  
knowledge has a new centrality with regard to the capitalistic  
production of conflict, we need to consider two matters further.

Firstly, that the quality and production of this knowledge itself  
becomes a strategic field of struggle. In this way the experience of  
self-education in many universities at a global level represents a  
decisive field of conflict: workers' management of their own  
knowledge, of production and of its socialization. This is synonymous  
with worker autonomy and therefore with exodus from contemporary  
command. The construction of autonomy and the planning of ways for  
existing networks to increase these practices is what, for example,  
the "edu-factory" project is all about. The demand for the autonomy of  
content and the modality of the research of self-education itself is  
the field of difference capable of threatening the new set of command.

Secondly, to speak about the university and the contemporary  
institutions of capitalist command and of self-education, is to try to  
find an adequate organizational level for the contemporary dispositif  
of power. It is to attempt to elucidate how it articulates, to attempt  
to hone in on its modes of governance. It is to attempt to read these  
modes of governance as process of power and command management and to  
attempt to find ways to react to the creative power of conflicts: this  
is the answer and advanced point of new forms of command.

How are we to articulate the organizational practice of self-education  
when a physical outside does not exist? From where do we organize the  
threat? We need to find a new and public line of escape: a way to  
invent new weapons as Deleuze and Guattari (2004: 445) said, in a  
scenario that is no longer physical but becoming more and more time  
bound. We need to organize self-educational practices and workers  
self- management at a new level: at the level of the institution. And  
it is in this sense that we come to the idea of an autonomous  
institution. We must organize the university space, from inside, as an  
irreducible outside: a place where we find material resources, funds  
and organizational resources for labour's management of knowledge,  
autonomy and production of critical knowledge. By critical knowledge I  
mean a sort of knowledge that is able to organize, to open up and  
manage the crisis of the command of productive power as it goes  
through knowledge.

Bousquet M. (2008) How the University Works: Higher Education and the  
Low-wage Nation, New York: New York University Press.
Deleuze G and Guattari F. (2004) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and  
Schizophrenia, trans. B. Massumi. London: Continuum Press.
Marx K. (1993) Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political  
Economy, trans. M. Nicolaus. London: Penguin.
Vercellone C. (2006) Capitalismo Cognitivo conoscenza e finanza  
nell?epoca postfordista, Rome: Manifestolibri.
Negri A and C. Vercellone (2008) ?Il rapporto capitale/lavoro nel  
capitalismo cognitivo?. []

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info:
#  archive: contact: