Conference PaperPDF Available

Messing with the explosive commodity: school improvement, educational research and labour-power in the era of global capitalism

  • University of Northampton (retired)


A paper for the Symposium on: 'If We Aren't Pursuing Improvement, What Are We Doing?', Convened by Joanna Swann.
Messing with the Explosive Commodity:
School Improvement, Educational Research and Labour-Power
In the Era of Global Capitalism
Glenn Rikowski
A paper prepared for the Symposium on
‘If We Aren’t Pursuing Improvement, What Are We Doing?’
Convened by Joanna Swann
Cardiff University, Wales
7th September, Session 3.4
Are social scientists asking the right questions? For example, what is new in educational research?
How has educational research actually advanced in recent years? What new and fundamental research
questions has it tackled? How might researching such questions lead to new and better forms of
teaching and learning practice? (Professor Ron Amman, ESRC Chief Executive, Speech in the Senate
Room, University of Birmingham, May 1996 in Rikowski, 1996, p.3)
Prelude II
: the Social Universe of Capital
We live in the social universe of capital. The substance of this social universe is value (Neary,
2000; Neary and Rikowski, 2000; Rikowski, 2000). Capital is value in motion (Kay and Mott, 1982).
Value is not a “thing”. In its first incarnation in the capitalist labour process it inheres within some
material “things”, in commodities; though it can also be created within immaterial commodities too
(Lazzarato, 1996; Burford, 2000).
Thus, value, as the substance of the social universe of capital
should not be thought of as some kind of „stuff‟, some material substratum. It is, after all, a social
substance. Value can be viewed as being social energy that undergoes transformations: its first
metamorphosis being its constitution as capital in the form of surplus value. As Ana Dinerstein
(1997) notes, „social energy is permanently being transformed‟ (p.83), and created too. Value is a
„multi-dimensional field of social energy: a social substance with a directional dynamic (expansion)
but no social identity‟ (Neary and Rikowski, 2000, p.18). It is the „matter and anti-matter of Marx‟s
social universe‟ (ibid.).
The first „Prelude‟ can be found in Education, Capital and the Transhuman (Rikowski, 1999a, pp.50-53).
As Burford (2000) notes, this point has tremendous implications for theorising social class. The main one being that
as against mainstream sociological conceptions of class there is no essential split between manual and non-manual
labour, nor between manufacturing industry and services. Labour in service industries also creates value and surplus
value. This challenges the whole basis of the conception of social class currently in use in sociological discussions. For
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
Although value is the substance constituting the social universe of capital it is not self-
generating. It cannot create itself, nor can it morph into capital on its own accord. It is labour (Marx,
1867a) that creates value and mediates its various transformations (Postone, 1996), firstly into
capital on the basis of surplus value, and then the myriad forms of capital springing from surplus
value. As Karl Marx (1858) indicated in the Grundrisse:
Labour is the living, form-giving fire; it is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, as their formation
by living time. (p.361)
Thus: the existence of the substance (value as social energy) that constitutes the social universe
depends upon our labour. Labour, in turn, is dependent upon our capacity to labour; the energy,
skills, knowledge, physical and personal qualities that we, as labourers, posses. In sum, the activity
of our labour (in conjunction with means of production and raw materials) rests upon our capacity
to labour: our labour power. Marx defines labour power in the following way; it is…
… the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he
exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description. (1867a, p.164)
Labour power here has real existence: it exists as it is transformed into labour (otherwise, in the
labour market, it has virtual existence within the body of the potential labourer). Labour power is
fuel for the living fire (labour). In the labour process, labour power (potential, capacity to labour) is
transformed into labour (activity, actuality). The personal and physical qualities, powers, skills and
so on of labourers are activated by the will of the labourer for the performance of labour.
On the basis of Marx‟s definition of labour power above, and in conjunction with research
undertaken by myself (Rikowski, 1990), labour power includes not just the usual „skills‟ and
knowledge but also incorporates the attitudes and personality traits essential for effective
performance within the labour process. It depends, therefore, on what is included within „mental
capabilities‟. Empirical research on the recruitment process (the process where employers assess
labour power) (e.g. studies cited in Rikowski, 1990), suggests „mental capabilities‟ must include
work attitudes, social attitudes and personality traits aspects of our „personalities‟. These too are
incorporated within labour power as it transforms itself into labour. Cuming‟s (1983) research gives
further weight to this suggestion.
In contemporary capitalist society, education and training are elements within definite forms
of labour power‟s social production. Empirically, these forms show a wide range of variation. They
Burford, social class is based on value, the social substance at the heart of capitalist society, not on some superficial
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
remain almost entirely uncharted.
The significant point is that the substance of the social universe
of capital (value) rests upon our labour, which in turn hinges on labour power being transformed
into labour in the labour process for the production of (im/material) commodities. Labour power (its
formation and quality), rests partly (though not exclusively) upon education and training in
contemporary capitalism. This is the real significance of education and training in capitalism today.
It is the source both of teachers‟ and trainers‟ social power. It is also the source of the paranoia
expressed by representatives of capital and the capitalist state as they seek to control the
formation of labour power so that it is confined within the value-form of labour. Angst results also
from the drive to raise labour power quality (for competition with other national capitals). What
defines „capitalist‟ schooling and training as precisely capitalist is that it is implicated in generating
the substance of the social universe of capital: value. We have come full circle. We are locked
within the labyrinth of capital.
To destroy this social universe it must be exploded from within, or imploded. The powers
that allow generation and expansion of the social universe of capital based on value can be
challenged and destroyed for human liberation. Indeed, in attempting to find solutions to our
predicament within this social universe as capitalised humanity, human capital (humans as capital),
we are driven to crash against the barriers of capitalist life, against the social relations of capital
itself (Rikowski, 1999a).
Value‟s generative powers are labour and labour power, but education and training in
today‟s capitalism inputs into labour power formation and hence impacts on value-creation.
Labour power is the most explosive commodity on the world market today. It is its fuel (the skills,
qualities and other attributes of the labourer making for effective labour), and its dull spark
(subsumption of the will of the labourer to the point of active labour) that energises the fire of
labour. Labour power is explosive in another sense. New forms of labour power expenditure, and
hence new forms of labour, based upon human need forms that crash beyond the value-form of
labour, cutting short the formation of capital point towards a form of social life that is suppressed
within the social universe of capital: communism.
cultural, status or income considerations.
Though I have made some very preliminary investigations of some of these empirical forms of labour power
production in unpublished work, in relation to the social production of engineering technicians and craftspeople.
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
Education and training, as well as contributing towards the social production of labour
powers, contain, restrain and confine this social production within limits set by the value-form of
labour. They defuse and stabilise labour power as an explosive commodity that can form the basis
of kinds of labour that shatters limitations imposed by the value-form of labour. Education and
training in this sense are the enemy of a future of humanity as not-capital, humanity uncapitalised
hence able to have a future, to posses the future rather than being possessed by it as capital.
Politically, therefore, struggles over education and training have never been more significant
than they are today. This significance has never been clearer, especially in this country as the New
Labour Government constantly tells us that it wants to re-design us as ever-higher quality human
capital. Human capital is the social form that labour power takes in capitalist society (Rikowski,
1999a). It is incorporated within the „human‟ itself (ibid.), within us. The implosion and dissolution of
the capitalist form (human capital) of the explosive commodity (labour power) necessarily involves
changing us. This occurs as we change simultaneously the social relations that maintain us as this
horrific life form (i.e. the social relations nurturing and sustaining us as the capitalised life form that
we have become). Education for human liberation of necessity includes educating ourselves
regarding what we have become. Most importantly though, this has to incorporate revolutionary
pedagogy. That is (after Peter McLaren, 2000): pedagogy for revolution from and against what we
have become for an open future. We are the enemies of the closed society: capitalism.
The Explosive Commodity (that other great class of commodities)
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 element that can inform us
This section draws heavily on my other BERA 2000 paper: That Other Great Class of Commodities: Repositioning
Marxist Educational Theory.
Marx had made this point earlier in A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859, p.27) and also in the
Grundrisse (1858, p.881).
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
about more complex phenomena springing from it, in the same way that human DNA provides
significant data on the more concrete features of humans in general and particular individuals.
Moreover, value is not something that can be directly observed, thus:
In the analysis of economic forms … neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force
of abstraction must replace both. … [And to] the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms
seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those
dealt with in microscopic anatomy. (ibid.)
The commodity was the perfect starting point for Marx as it incorporates the basic structuring
elements of capitalist society: value, use-value and exchange-value posited on the basis of
abstract labour as measured by labour-time (Postone, 1996, pp.127-128). It is the condensed
„general form of the product‟ in capitalist society (ibid., p.148), the „most elementary form of
bourgeois wealth‟ (Marx, 1863, p.173), and hence the „formation and premise of capitalist
production‟ (Marx, 1866, p.1004). Commodities are also „the first result of the immediate process of
capitalist production, its product‟ (Marx, 1866, p.974).
In Theories of Surplus Value Part One (Marx, 1863), Marx makes it clear that there are two
classes or categories of commodities within the social universe of capital, for:
The whole world of “commodities” can be divided into two great parts. First, labour-power; second,
commodities as distinct from labour-power itself. (Marx, 1863, p.167)
These commodities are distinguished essentially on the following consideration:
A commodity as distinguished from labour-power itself is a material thing confronting man, a thing
of a certain utility for him, in which a definite quantity of labour is fixed or materialised. (Marx, 1863,
p.164 original emphasis)
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, 1863, p.171 my emphases).
Unfortunately, Marx confuses the issue by referring to “material commodities” and commodities as
“objects” elsewhere. It should not be forgotten that Marx wrote Capital for the workers (whilst also
trying to impress German professors). The examples he uses in Capital to illustrate his arguments
relating to commodities were all of the material, „object‟ kind: coats, linen, iron paper and so on. In
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
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.
This last point is crucial. Marx‟s original distinction between labour power and the „general
class‟ of commodities was that the latter were external to the person of the labourer, whereas
labour power was incorporated within personhood itself. However, with people buying cosmetic
surgery, the market in spare body parts and the future beckoning big business in human design
and re-design facilities (Joy, 2000), the physical externality of the „general class‟ of commodities to
human beings is no longer what it was in Marx‟s day. These developments herald the breakdown
of this aspect of Marx‟s original distinction between the two great classes of commodities. What,
then, is the distinction between the two categories of commodities if the externality criterion is no
longer what it was?
It could be argued that a distinction still exists between the two great classes on the
following considerations. First, labour power is an aspect of the person; it is internal to personhood,
in a special sense. It is a unified force flowing throughout the person. The installation of a new
heart an object originally external to the person in question, or an artificial hip joint does not
change this. Labour power has no specific location within personhood; it is a force flowing
throughout the totality the person. Labour power has reality only within the person, whereas
general commodities have existence external to the person and can also become elements of
persons, as increasing numbers of medical products become incorporated within the human.
Labour power, as a human force, cannot leave humans and, for example, act as the same force
within bricks. As Marx noted, labour power does „not exist apart from him [the labourer] at all‟
See also: „The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its qualities, satisfies human need of
whatever kind (Marx, 1858, p.125).
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
(Marx, 1858, p.267). It cannot be external to the person (though items of the „general class‟ of
commodities can be part of personhood). Marx notes the „uniqueness‟ of labour power in this
respect (1863, p.45). Secondly, labour power (unlike a brick) is under the sway of a potentially
hostile will. Internality and consciousness distinguish labour power from the general class of
commodities and itself.
However, it could be argued that some animals have a capacity to labour (e.g. pit ponies,
dray horses, police dogs), and also have consciousness. A final point presents human labour
power as qualitatively different from animal labour power: socially average human labour power
uniquely constitutes value. It is the labour performed by socially average human labour power that
is the foundation of the abstract labour that forms value. Abstract labour rests upon the socially
necessary labour time required to produce any use value under conditions normal for a given
society, and this presupposes socially average human labour power (Marx, 1867; Neary and
Rikowski, 2000, pp.20-21). Human labour power (at the socially average) constitutes value, not
concrete (directly observable) labour (Marx, 1867). No other commodity (either living or dead) has
this unique capacity. Wo(men) are the „measure of all things‟; the social universe of capital is
constituted, and its most fundamental social forms (value and capital) are created and mediated (in
their transformations), by us. Yet capital, as social force and relation, comes to dominate us, its
progenitors (Postone, 1996).
Labour power, on this account, is the special commodity that generates value (the
substance of capital) and hence capital itself. Without human labour power, there is no capital no
matter what the level of technological development. The next section offers a brief account of the
generation of value and surplus value. It illustrates the centrality of labour power to the
maintenance and expansion of the social universe of capital.
Value and Surplus-value in the Era of Global Capital
In capitalist society, the labour process has a dual nature. First, it is a process of producing use-
values; these are useful „things‟ that „become a reality only by use or consumption‟ (Marx, 1867,
p.44). Without any usefulness, a product is not a commodity at all no matter how much labour
has gone into it. The value of that labour will not be realised in its sale; there are no buyers for
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
useless products, though what is “useful” has a social dimension (much played upon by advertising
companies and rip-off merchants).
However, the capitalist labour process is also, and quintessentially, a valorisation process, a
process of producing value. Commodities in capitalist society incorporate both use-value (their
qualitative aspect) and value (their quantitative aspect). After the capitalist (or these days,
representatives of capital) have bought means of production and any raw materials required, it is
the transformation of labour power (our force, skills and so on human mental and physical
energy) into actual labour that creates value through the production of commodities. Value inheres
within, is incorporated within, commodities. Workers (and their offspring) have to live otherwise
the whole process is put at risk for the future. Thus, the value of labour power itself is determined
by the value of necessities „required to produce, develop, maintain, and perpetuate the labouring
power‟ (Marx, 1865, p.57) again, to the social average (acknowledging social and historical
changes in the constitution of “necessities”). The value of labour power is defined by the labour-
time it takes the labourer (and in toto the mass of labour powers) to create value through acts of
labour in the labour process sufficient to the total value of these “necessities”. Any value above that
level of labouring produces surplus value. Labour-time, therefore is split into two parts: that part
that goes towards creating value for the social reproduction of the labourer(s), and that part which
is unpaid, unrequited labour-time. The wage form masks this difference. When we are paid wages,
it appears that we are paid for all the work that we do to the last microsecond. This is an illusion,
but a necessary illusion, and one upon which the whole capitalist system depends.
Surplus value is the lifeblood of capital. It is the first form in which capital appears, and is the
source of profit, state revenues and other forms of capital. It is the basis of subsequent production
cycles. However, although labourers sell their labour power as commodities (the commodities they
own) to representatives of capital for a duration, there is no guarantee that enough labour will be
undertaken to ensure the creation of surplus value. Collectively, capital‟s human representatives
(managers, managing directors etc.) must drive on the labouring masses to ensure surplus value is
produced. The concrete incentives for them to do so (profits, salaries, share options, bonuses and
so on) are significant, as are competitive pressures to ensure their businesses stay in the market.
This misses the point, which is that of necessity surplus value must be created in order that the
competitive scramble to appropriate it can even begin. For the system as a whole (though
individual capitals may fall by the wayside), surplus value production is an absolute, iron necessity.
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
It is labour power, as a unique social and individual force, that enables all this to happen.
The containment of the expression of our abilities and capacities within the value-form of labour,
(labour as the production of value), requires social oppression and repression on a vast, global
scale. Furthermore, in the era of global capitalism the quality of labour power within national
capitals (nation states) has become of increasing significance in the struggle to grab the maximum
from the total surplus value produced on a world scale. This expresses itself in a restless and
manic race amongst contemporary nation states to outdo each other on the quality of their labour
powers. Each of the leading capitalist states searches for the Holy Grail of education and training
that can deliver better quality labour power than competitors. This is one of the social drives of
capital generating such phenomena as school improvement and effectiveness initiatives within
schools a point expanded on in a later section.
Relative Surplus-value: On the basis of labour power enhancement
There are two main ways of producing surplus value. The first is to extend the length of the working
day. This effectively extends the labour-time that labourers are engaged in producing surplus value
through labour that is not reflected in the wage. Marx called this absolute surplus value production.
It is an old method, coming back into fashion now that labour markets everywhere have been made
more „flexible‟, with the number of hours worked by full-time workers in Britain on the increase over
the last 20 years. This form of surplus value production has absolute limits: there are only 24 hours
in a day and workers have to sleep, eat and reproduce. Attempts to break through the latter limits
(as in the Industrial Revolution) result in the physical and mental deterioration of workers thus
ultimately affecting the quality of their labour powers (not such a problem when vast masses of new
labour power are to hand).
The second method of surplus value creation Marx called relative surplus value production.
Here, the labour-time it takes to produce value equal to the value of labour power (necessary
labour) is reduced. The main way that this has occurred historically is through the application of
machinery to production, including computer-based automation. Application of new technology has
the effect of reducing the labour-time necessary for generating value equivalent to the value of
labour power. It increases labour productivity. On a global scale, this effectively reduces the value
of labour power across the board, as the value of each of the “necessities”, constituting also the
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
value of labour power, falls. This process increases the labour-time devoted to surplus value
production, as a proportion of total labour-time (whilst this remains constant). The point at which
surplus value arises from labouring in the labour process is reached earlier as compared with
before the new technology was introduced. The working day is re-divided on the basis of
necessary labour-time (where the labourer generates value up to point equal to the value of labour
power) and labour-time over-and-above this when surplus value is produced yielding more of the
latter. This is only one way of producing relative surplus value.
In an era of globalisation where technological innovation spreads more quickly than ever
before, capitals have been seeking new ways of generating relative surplus value. One of the
forms of relative surplus value production that has gained increasing sponsorship in recent years is
the strategy of enhancing the quality of labour power itself. If this could be done it would have the
effect of reducing necessary labour (the labour-time taken to produce value equal to the value of
labour power), hence increasing surplus value-creating time. The technicist point regarding
whether „really existing‟ education and training policies actually have this effect is not the issue
though it is an issue for many education and training researchers. The essential point to grasp is
that in contemporary capitalism there is a social drive to enhance the quality of human labour
power. This social drive, like all of capital‟s social drives is infinite. It would not make any logical
sense within the perverted social universe of capital to suggest any real limit on the basis of the
functioning of the system itself.
However, in similar fashion to absolute surplus value production,
the infinite social drive to enhance the quality of human labour power clashes with a number of
practical considerations. First, labour power development depends on co-operation which
expresses itself in the „problem of motivation‟, an individual willingness to aid development of one‟s
own labour power. Secondly, when pushed too far we witness „the humans are dropping like flies‟:
humans buckling under as they are subjected to concrete (and hence necessarily limited)
manifestations of an infinite social drive. Thus: depression (with no terminal point to
„improvement‟); various forms of stress and ill health; and so on. Thirdly, people may protest and
effectively revolt against an impersonal social drive 'manifesting' itself as concrete social practice.
Fourthly, those generating these social practices are only human, all too human (though they are
humans, that, like everyone else, have become forms of capital, humans capitalised Rikowski,
Just as there are no logical limits to value production in its relative form. A moral limit on what constitutes a „fair wage‟
or „a good day‟s work‟ has no force within the social universe of capital.
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
1999a). As capitalised life-forms, the designers of concrete schemes that seek to nurture a social
drive that is infinite can do this precisely because they have some affinity with these social
practices that express capital‟s social drives. Fifthly, as “we” are capital too, we can aesthetically
and logically „appreciate‟ the concrete expressions of infinite social drives, whilst also being able to
see the contradiction involved. This contradiction is the notion that an infinite social drive can be
concretely expressed. The prospect is absurd, as it assumes infinite resources, time, labour (of a
quality that is not just good but infinitely good) and effort (beyond all limits) to activate and effect
the infinite social drive. Educational representatives of capital disguise this by urging all pupils and
teachers to keep on going „beyond their previous best‟ (e.g. Professor Tim Brighouse,
Birmingham's Chief Education Officer).
We Are Driven: school improvement and effectiveness
On the analysis provided thus far, the school effectiveness and school improvement movement
(SESIM) is a concrete (therefore, necessarily limited) expression of the abstract social drive to
enhance the quality of human labour power. As a concrete expression, obviously the details take
on differences as between nations, local education authorities or school SEMI programmes. But
this analysis has certain consequences and implications.
First, capital‟s abstract social drives are inherent within capital itself. The complete abolition
of any school effectiveness or school improvement (SESI) programme would not abolish this drive
itself; only the abolition of the value-form of labour (and hence capital) could have that result.
Second, on the basis of this social drive we are also driven to concretise it. The drive to
enhance labour power quality is an infinite social drive within the social universe of capital.
Arguments for activating this drive through concrete practice (as the SESIM, as individual
programmes for improvement in schools, also as college effectiveness/improvement, university
effectiveness/improvement indeed as improvement/effectiveness of any element within the social
production of labour power) are always socially validated within the social universe of capital.
Such projects are validated and conferred credibility on the basis of the perverted logic of capitalist
development, and the development of capital. This is so even though the human costs (teacher
suicide, pupil stress, increasing numbers of pupils on behaviour-modifying drugs and so on the
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
immiseration of education noted by Janet McKenzie, 2000) are increasingly well-documented in the
national and educational press.
Thirdly, the argument here has situated SESI within the social universe of capital. It has
uncovered some of the deeper forces making for the existence of the SESIM. This analysis has
gone beyond technicism (technical debates about which actual changes in school processes and
practices lead to greater school effectiveness or to school improvement). It has also undercut the
abstract nature of the SESI enterprise by locating the SESIM within the social universe of capital,
hence no longer viewing it purely on its own terms.
This Symposium‟s title assumes that we have a much greater degree of freedom (as a
nation, as local education authorities, as schools, as Head teachers and so on) to choose to effect
improvement in schools than in fact we do have. The Symposium title also carries within it the
ethical depth-charge that if we are not pursuing school improvement then we ought to be:
otherwise, what are we doing as education researchers? What else is there? Isn‟t this what
education research is all about? The analysis of this paper suggests that we be socially driven
towards SESI. Thus: it is not really a question of “choice”, more a question of explaining why we do
as we do, give the social universe we find ourselves in. It entails providing a social explanation that
enlightens simultaneously the nature of the „social‟ within which we exist: the social universe of
On the basis of the social drive to enhance labour power quality, a generalised social drive
that has many concrete expressions, it would be no surprise to discover that education research
itself was subject to this same social drive. When recent developments within education research
in England are examined, this is what can be found. There is a tightening of education research
around SESI that has gathered pace in the last few years. The pertinent concrete expressions here
include the ESRC Teaching and Learning Programme and the recent DfEE proposals to oversee
more closely the efforts and priorities of education research (see Sebba, 2000). One Popperian-like
conjecture: in five years time education research shall be even more tied to SESI than it is now
(along with more college/university improvement/effectiveness initiatives, too).
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
Messing with the Explosive Commodity (they know not what they do)
The SESIM is an abstract technicist enterprise premised on the basis that schools can be
improved, or made to be more effective, as a discrete end in itself. Even this misses the point. This
is that the very notion of SESI in „really existing capitalism‟ is a concrete expression of an abstract,
but real, social drive to enhance the quality of human labour power. SESI, on this basis, cannot be
practically separated from this social drive. The notion of SESI implied by this process suggests
that the SESIM is messing with the explosive commodity (labour power). It is merely messing with
it because it does not recognise its existence within its own frame of reference. This frame of
reference is concerned with improving a range of outputs conceived as being „educational‟ in
nature, or making schools more effective as „educational‟ institutions.
The SESIM operates in a box-like social world where what is really going is left unexplored.
To actually explore it however presupposes adopting communist science that starts out from basic
premises founded upon Karl Marx‟s social universe: the social universe of capital. Mere
consideration of the possibility of this occurrence is laughable. Another Popperian-like conjecture:
the SESIM soldiers on regardless, continuing to tinker with the explosive commodity to an ever
greater degree, its practitioners „knowing not what they do‟, but socially driven to do it.
One day, perhaps, the most explosive of commodities may indeed explode. This would
entail school students themselves, parents and others recognising what students and trainees are
socially driven to be in capitalist education and training: their humanity reduced to labour power on
an expanding and intensified scale. It would entail the SESIM protagonists recognising the social
existence of labour power and their own efforts to reduce humanity to it. As someone else has
remarked, using a different sense of “explosion”:
“Bring on the bomb, let‟s get it on! I said bring on the bomb, let‟s get it on. Get it on”
(Easterhouse, Waiting for the Redbird, Rough Trade Records, 1989).
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
What Are We Doing?
The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it
(Karl Marx, 1845, Theses on Feuerbach, Thesis 11, p.620).
If „we‟ are Marxist educational theorists and researchers, then „what are we doing‟? I am not
personally committed to pursuing „school improvement‟
as currently constituted, but I understand
what it means. I have two children of secondary school age (and another who left school last year).
This helps me to grasp its concrete effects on people‟s lives. On the other hand, I live in a society
that is heavily engaged in SESI. It is a society where Government Ministers openly use the
language of labour power enhancement (human capital development) in its praise and for its
justification. So: what am I doing, as a Marxist involved in education? Why should Marxists be
bothered with depressing capitalist schooling and training when they could be doing other things
supporting picket lines, selling radical newspapers and so on to support revolutionary social
In my article Third Fantasy from the Right (Rikowski, 1999b), I explained that „Marxism
articulates the fragility of the social force that oppresses us all, the social force dominating
humanity: capital‟ (p.26). Furthermore, Marxism:
also seeks out the weaknesses of the domination of capital, … and aims to nurture and support
political organisations, strategies, acts of subversion and forms of fun which press upon these weak
points in an effort to overturn and abolish the rule of capital and its associated horrors. (Rikowski,
1999b, p.27)
Finally, Marxism is primarily a theory, not of, but against (capitalist) society. Insofar as it is a theory
of society then it is a…
negative theory of society. It attempts to theoretically and practically dissolve the value-form of
labour, classes (abolition, not celebration of the working class) and all other forms of oppression.
Communism represents the movement of this project. (ibid.)
On this account of Marxism, and from the overall analysis of this paper, it should now be obvious
why a Marxist might find working in an education department or indeed any educational
environment rewarding. Labour power is the foundation of capital; its transformation into labour is
the basis of value and surplus value. Education and training are heavily implicated in the social
production of the one commodity labour power on which the whole capitalist system rests.
Strategically, therefore, labour power and its social production are weak points within the
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
domination of capital. There is no better phenomenon to study, if anyone is seriously interested in
locating capital‟s weak links, than to be researching the social production of labour power, or to be
an educator. To be actively involved in the social production of labour power, or in researching it, is
to be in the hot seat regarding gaining an understanding of this unique commodity and its social
production a commodity on which the existence of the social universe of capital depends. Those
who are involved in any way in education are privileged: they have a ringside seat for observation
and are active participants in the social production of labour power.
Those involved in education also have more opportunities for developing critical education
and revolutionary pedagogies that challenge the social domination of capital (Allman, 1999;
McLaren, 2000). They have everyday access to significant processes of labour power formation.
Possibilities for „revolutionary praxis‟ (Allman, 1999) can be generated even in the harsh conditions
and unpromising milieu of contemporary capitalist education.
To be realistic: New Labour‟s embrace of capital has, on the other hand, intensified the
reduction of humanity to labour power through its education policy. Yet this intensification of the
process (no matter what the concrete results) is also risky. As I have argued elsewhere (Rikowski,
1999a), the more we become capital, humans capitalised, then paradoxically, the more we
recognise capital within us as we are forced to deal with its contradictions as aspects of our own
lives. New Labour‟s education policy makes all this clearer, including our own awareness of what
we have become, and where we are headed. We are not alone.
Nevertheless, as a contract education researcher, of course I have worked on projects engaged with processes of
educational „improvement‟ (Education Action Zones, HE/business links, college finance etc.). This would be expected
when the bulk of education research is this, or is premised or justified on this basis.
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
ALLMAN, P. (1999) Revolutionary Social Transformation: Democratic Hopes, Political Possibilities and
Critical Education (Westport, Connecticut: Bergin & Garvey).
BURFORD, C. (2000) Re: Globalization article, 5th August, 14:59 UTC. Comments on David Eisenhower‟s
Globalization: Built on lies, 02/08/00, at:
CUMING, D. (1983) School-Leavers, Qualifications and Employment (Nottingham: 6, Holgate, NG11 8NH).
DINERSTEIN, A. (1997) Marxism and Subjectivity: searching for the marvellous (Prelude to a Marxist notion
of action), Common Sense, no.22, December, pp. 83-96.
JOY, B. (2000) Why the future doesn‟t need us, Wired, April, pp. 238-262.
KAY, G. & MOTT, J. (1982) Political Order and the Law of Labour (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan).
LAZZARATO, M. (1996) Immaterial Labor, in: P. Virno & M. Hardt (Eds) Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential
Politics, Theory Out Of Bounds, Volume 7 (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press).
MARX, K. (1845) [1976] Theses on Feuerbach, Appendix to K. Marx & F. Engels, The German Ideology
(Moscow: Progress Publishers).
MARX, K. (1858) [1973] Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Harmondsworth:
MARX, K. (1859) [1977] A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (Moscow: Progress Publishers).
MARX, K. (1863) [1969] Theories of Surplus Value Part One (London: Lawrence & Wishart).
MARX, K. (1865) [1977] Wages, Price and Profit, in: Selected Works, Volume 2 (Moscow: Progress
MARX, K. (1867a) [1976] Capital: a critique of political economy Volume 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin).
MARX, K. (1867b) [1977] Preface to the First German Edition of Capital Volume 1 (London: Lawrence &
McKENZIE, J. (2000) Educational Pasts and Futures: The case for humane and ecological development.
Paper presented at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference 2000, „Making Time
Marking Time‟, University of York, 17-20th April.
McLAREN, P. (2000) Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution (Lanham, Maryland:
Rowman & Littlefield).
NEARY, M. (2000) Labour Moves: A Critique of Social Movement Unionism. Unpublished paper,
Department of Sociology, University of Warwick, Coventry.
NEARY, M & RIKOWSKI, G. (2000) The Speed of Life: the significance of Karl Marx’s concept of socially
necessary labour-time. Paper presented at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference
2000, „Making Time Marking Time‟, University of York, 17-20th April. Forthcoming in: G. Crow & S,
Heath (2001) (Eds) Times in the Making (London: Macmillan).
POSTONE, M. (1996) Time, Labor and Social Domination: A reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
RIKOWSKI, G. (1990) The Recruitment Process and Labour Power. Unpublished Paper, Division of
Humanities & Modern Languages, Epping Forest College, Loughton, Essex, July.
Dr. Glenn Rikowski
BERA 2000, Session 3.4
RIKOWSKI, G. (1996) ESRC Forum: Visit of Professor Ron Amman, Chief Executive, ESRC to the
University of Birmingham, Senate Room, 22nd May, 3.45pm. Report from Glenn Rikowski to the CRS
Group, School of Education, University of Birmingham, 18th June.
RIKOWSKI, G. (1999a) Education, Capital and the Transhuman, in: D. Hill, P.McLaren & G. Rikowski (Eds)
Postmodernism in Educational Theory: Education and the Politics of Human Resistance (London:
Tufnell Press).
RIKOWSKI, G. (1999b) Third Fantasy from the Right, Education and Social Justice, 1(3), pp. 25-27.
RIKOWSKI, G. (2000) Education and Social Justice within the Social Universe of Capital. A paper presented
to the BERA Day Seminar on 'Approaching Social Justice in Education: Theoretical Frameworks for
Practical Purposes‟, Faculty of Education, Nottingham Trent University, Clifton Hall, 10th April.
SEBBA, J. (2000) Educational Research and the Role of Central Government. A paper presented by Judy
Sebba, Standards and Effectiveness Unit, Department for Education and Employment, to the
Conference on „Diversity or Control in Educational Research?‟ City University, London, 27th January.
Dr. Glenn Rikowski is Senior Research Fellow in Lifelong Learning, Faculty of Education, University of
Central England in Birmingham, England. Comments, observations or suggestions regarding this paper;
please contact:
... But this is not impossible -even for posthumans. The social drive to produce (surplus) value is infinite in volume, speed and intensify (Rikowski, 2000b). Against an infinite social drive, humans, posthumans or superhumans always necessarily fall short. ...
... Each of the leading capitalist states searches for the Holy Grail of education and training that can deliver better quality labour power than competitors. This is one of the social drives of capital generating such phenomena as school improvement and effectiveness initiatives within schools (Rikowski, 2000b). ...
... This section draws heavily from my British Educational Research Association paper Messing with the Explosive Commodity(Rikowski, 2000b) and also fromRikowski (2000a) andRikowski (1999a-b). ...
Full-text available
This paper was prepared for the Birkbeck College Seminar Series on 'Marx, Individuals & Society' on 26th October 2000. It argues that transhumanists have avoided certain developments in contemporary society that indicate that humans are already transhuman to the extent that they are becoming 'human capital'. In this account, human capital is the capitalisation of humanity; the processes involved in humans becoming a form of capital, capital within the human. Thus, the notion of 'human capital' is far more horrific than any techno-scientific transformation of the human body.
... As the social domination of capital intensifies and deepens, and also extends (globalisation) no area of social life is left untouched. This includes, of course, education and training (Rikowski, 2000a(Rikowski, , 2000c(Rikowski, , 2000d(Rikowski, , 2001b(Rikowski, , 2002a and the "human" itself -the capitalisation of humanity that only a few Marxists want to contemplate (see Rikowski, 1999Rikowski, , 2000e, 2001a. ...
... 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. ...
... As I have argued on many occasions (Rikowski, 1990(Rikowski, , 1995(Rikowski, , 1999(Rikowski, , 2000a(Rikowski, , 2000c(Rikowski, , 2000d(Rikowski, , and 2002a, the best starting point for Marxist educational theory is labour-power and its social production. In That Other Great Class of Commodities (Rikowski, 2000d) I examined other possible starting points (e.g. ...
Full-text available
A paper presented at a Guest Lecture in Sociology of Education, The Gillian Rose Room, University of Warwick, Coventry. After a brief history of Marxist educational theory, the paper indicates how education and training in contemporary society are implicated in the social production of labour-power. Labour-power is unique in capitalist society as it is the only commodity capable of increasing value over-and-above its own creation, use and maintenance. Capital’s existence and expansion is founded upon the transformation of labour-power into labour in the capitalist labour process which generates commodities that incorporate value. It is argued that, as labour-power is under the sway of the labourer’s will whilst also nurturing value, it is therefore capital’s weakest link. However, education and training in capitalism can be viewed as seeking to constitute the labourer as capital; to integrate the human into capital as human capital. Resistance to this process indicates our social condition as being schizoid: we are labour and capital. The class struggle therefore flows through our being, our mode of existence. This applies to human representatives of capital as much as those representing labour; both representations exist side-by-side within us, in varying strengths which can change, sometimes rapidly. Radical educators can be viewed as living lives that are personal expressions of the contradictory nature of human existence in capitalist society.
... For me, it is crucial that it does this. In this light, I have produced work on working students (Rikowski and Neary, 1997;and Rikowski 2000e), lifelong learning , apprenticeship (Rikowski, 1996b-c and1999), the learning society (Rikowski, 1998), school improvement (Rikowski, 2000b), the 'needs of industry' regarding youth labour (Rikowski, 2000a and2001a), education markets (Rikowski, 1995), New Labour's Green Paper on Education (Rikowski, 2001b), the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) (Rikowski, 2001e) and work experience schemes (Rikowski 1992). ...
... On the one hand we are 'capital' (human capital), yet we also revolt internally against this view of ourselves, as we must if we are to survive. As the social drives of capital are infinite (Rikowski, 2000b) then we would drive ourselves on towards destruction through overwork and sacrifice our lives to capitalist production, as, unfortunately, some of us do, if the capital aspect of our 'selves' ruled totally. We would destroy ourselves. ...
... For more on the social universe of capital, see:Neary and Rikowski (2002),Rikowski (2000bRikowski ( , 2000cRikowski ( , 2002bRikowski ( , 2002d andMcLaren and Rikowski (2001). 5 As Michael Neary notes: "Marx"s social universe is based on value, which he clearly considered in cosmological terms"(2004, p.240, fn.2). ...
Full-text available
This paper presents an outline of a particular Marxist approach to the study of education in contemporary society.
... RTSs, therefore, can be described as institutional assemblages composed of national, sectoral, and place-based informal and formal educational and training practices, initiatives and programs, policies, strategies, and discourses. They operate to recruit, commodify, discipline and socially produce employable and exploitable desired workers according to the skill needs of employers (i.e., labor power attributes such as technical skills and personality traits within a worker as defined by Rikowski (2000Rikowski ( , 2004. These dynamics do not consider workers as universal individuals detached from their gender, race, ethnicity, and class-as the GVC approach assumes-but built upon such features, enhancing labor market segmentation and uneven development (Yeung, 2002). ...
... Firms in GPNs also shape RTSs based on their strategic need to reduce internal training costs by externalizing training to public institutions and retaining a large pool of skilled workers, which impede a talent war and an escalation of wages (Kleibert, 2015). Moreover, as the value of a commodity is based on the socially necessary labor time taken to produce it (Marx, 1867), schooling and training play a crucial role in GPNs' competitive strategies, given that changes in skills and productivity allow firms to minimize costs with internal training 5 , to produce commodities at a lower value, and sell them at a lowerthan-average price of the market (see Rikowski, 2000). Schooling and training can also positively impact the quality of the commodities produced by workers, making firms even more competitive (Rikowski, 2004;Slaughter and Rhoades, 2010). ...
Full-text available
This article argues that the global value chains framework has a problematic approach to examining the impact of value chains on workforce development systems (WDSs), given how it is based on market relations and a firm-centric view. The paper develops an alternative approach to examine value chains’ impact on WDSs as territorially and institutionally regulated, and as part of broader dynamics of accumulation and uneven development. A research agenda is suggested, which emphasizes the “dark side” of value chains’ impact on WDSs. This article contributes to the economic geography literature concerned with value chains, including the Global Production Networks approach.
... Like any form of property, capitalists attempt to accumulate by dispossession by securing a natural form, namely the possession of properties of the virus, as intellectual property and its exploitation for future rents and profits. COVID-19, in opening up new markets and forms of commodity, produces the potential for capitalism to expand its 'social universe' of commodities in all directions (Rikowski 2000) but this also produces new fields and arenas for class conflict. COVID-19 will bring new forms of scientific labour into the enterprise of vaccine and (potentially) virus production hence a commodity is being produced on a viral engineering scale with all of the multi-dimensional aspects of class conflict that exist for other commodities. ...
... The viral and anti-viral industries present a new opportunity for profit and one would expect finance capital to move from less profitable areas of the economy to the 'COVID-19' industry. The mobility and spontaneity of capital and its flows are (as remarked on in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels 2002) a remarkable modernist achievement but also alert us that the motion of capital is continuous as it is always in crisis and always in conflict with the living force of labour (Rikowski 2000). Although capitalism consistently seeks new markets and opportunities for exploitation, we would reject the metaphor of a 'virus' for capitalism itself and it is not the one which is appropriate here. ...
The focus of this chapter is on mutual aid disaster relief and associated forms of preparedness instantiated by anarchist and allied autonomous social movements. In order to understand the state perspective on grassroots action, it begins with some background on the current policy context, particularly changes in understanding that have occurred in the shift from Fordist social democracy to post-Fordist neoliberalism. This chapter then considers the phenomenon of mutual aid disaster relief: the current conjecture has seen an unprecedented proliferation of self-identifying mutual aid groups in the UK and globally. While these groups often form the basis of ‘feel good’ news stories, this chapter situates mutual aid in the history of anarchist political thought, first coined by Kropotkin as a radical alternative to the social Darwinism of his era, and in working-class social practice. This chapter presents the contemporary anarchist position drawing on sources written by anarchists in response to the COVID-19 crisis, particularly in the form of internet articles and blogs. It is argued that mutual aid is part of a broader anarchist movement, which engages in more confrontational activities such as strikes and occupations as well as longer-term co-operative infrastructure and permaculture projects, in order to defend a sphere of autonomy from capitalism. The anarchist response links local, immediate actions like mutual aid to structural critiques of capitalism, and to longer-term infrastructure building, and needs to resist attempts by state and capital to recuperate and co-opt their radical activities into bureaucratised and regulated forms of ‘social capital’.
... Labour-power, on this account, is the special commodity that generates value (the substance of capital), and hence capital itself. Without human labour-power, there is no capitalno matter what the level of technological development (Rikowski, 2000b). The capitalist labour process, and the labour performed within it, incorporates a duality: the production of commodities that have use-value (they are useful products) and also incorporate value. ...
... In contemporary society, we are driven to enhance labour-power quality, no matter what the actual results. This flows from the fact that all of capital"s social drives are infinite; with no resting-place -no end point, where the satisfaction of a drive can be realised (Rikowski, 2000b). In tandem with the Rolling Stones, capital "can"t get no satisfaction"! ...
We use the term viracene to refer to the current process of viral pandemic destruction. Unlike the Anthropocene this is a short-term crust on wider planetary devastation and asset stripping of nature. However, these phases and descriptions are ephemeral when compared to the devastation of capitalism which sees itself as being eternal, operating on scales from the viral to the cosmic and unavoidably destructive of humanity and nature. This chapter advances the argument that the COVID-19 pandemic is part of capitalism and class relations. Capitalism is a multi-dimensional and dynamic form of social mediation that sees possible profit at all levels including the viral and fatal. Even the RNA code of the virus itself can be commodified. Viruses are mobilised by capital as a ‘force of nature’ that can then be used to increase profits. Excess populations can be exterminated ‘naturally’ through viral means in ways that benefit capital. Disaster capitalism extends both market and state enforcement of exploitative relations. Capitalism is not sympathetic to any form of life that it cannot commodify, but accepts them begrudgingly, and that includes both the coronavirus and humanity.
As a student of critical social theory who works within the radical pedagogical tradition influenced by Freire and Marxist currents, I am fundamentally concerned with revealing structural explanations for inequality in power relationships in society and doing so in ways that enable oppressed and exploited groups and classes to change the relational basis that underpins and constitutes this historical set of social fetishes and structures (the objectified effects of concrete and abstract human labor). I chose my career in education based upon the personal example of people who I admire such as Freire, Fanon, Lumumba, Luxemburg, and Che who committed their individual energies and capacities for thought and action to collective endeavors that might serve to transform this totalizing system of oppression that structures our everyday lives. In the late 1990s, student and social activism were cresting in the United States with the “Battle of Seattle” and the antisweatshop movement (Rikowski, 2001a). In Los Angeles, Justice for Janitors and the Bus Riders Union/Sindicato de Pasajeros (BRU) had won significant victories. It was during this period of acute struggle that I began my doctoral studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Faced with the urgency of change required, I wanted to pursue a scholarly career with both a social purpose and a decidedly activist edge.
Educational Research and the Role of Central Government. A paper presented by Judy Sebba, Standards and Effectiveness Unit, Department for Education and Employment, to the Conference on " Diversity or Control in Educational Research
  • J Th
SEBBA, J. (2000) Educational Research and the Role of Central Government. A paper presented by Judy Sebba, Standards and Effectiveness Unit, Department for Education and Employment, to the Conference on " Diversity or Control in Educational Research? " City University, London, 27 th January.
Re: Globalization article, 5 th Comments on David Eisenhower " s Globalization: Built on lies
  • C Cuming
BURFORD, C. (2000) Re: Globalization article, 5 th August, 14:59 UTC. Comments on David Eisenhower " s Globalization: Built on lies, 02/08/00, at: CUMING, D. (1983) School-Leavers, Qualifications and Employment (Nottingham: 6, Holgate, NG11 8NH).
Third Fantasy from the Right
  • G Rikowski
RIKOWSKI, G. (1999b) Third Fantasy from the Right, Education and Social Justice, 1(3), pp. 25-27.
Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution
  • P Mclaren
McLAREN, P. (2000) Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield).
Glenn Rikowski is Senior Research Fellow in Lifelong Learning, Faculty of Education Comments, observations or suggestions regarding this paper; please contact: Rikowskigr@aol
  • Dr
Dr. Glenn Rikowski is Senior Research Fellow in Lifelong Learning, Faculty of Education, University of Central England in Birmingham, England. Comments, observations or suggestions regarding this paper; please contact:
Educational Pasts and Futures: The case for humane and ecological development. Paper presented at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference
  • J Mckenzie
McKENZIE, J. (2000) Educational Pasts and Futures: The case for humane and ecological development. Paper presented at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference 2000, "Making Time -Marking Time", University of York, 17-20 th April.