Correspondence Pamphlet No 4: The Student as a Worker

This pamphlet was read and distributed in the Seminar, “Dismantling Democracy in the University”, organised in the University of Delhi on March 4 2010.

Is the semester system good or bad? If we say it is bad then why do we say so? I would say, and many might concur that privatization of the educational sector is also bad. Why do we say that? In the final session, we will discuss ‘politics in the university;’ why do we need a politics at all here? To begin to answer any such questions a more fundamental question needs to be addressed. What is the university and what do we do here?

The university is a workplace, where students, teachers and the karmcharis work. What is work about? It is about production – human beings are creative, and we create in our workplace. As creative beings we find fulfilment in what we create; what we create is an extension of ourselves, through which we reach out to others who are also part of society. In the university knowledge is produced; we study, teach, research and discuss. As creative beings involved in the production/creation of knowledge it is through the knowledge we produce that we put forth ourselves, our identities to the world. To truly find fulfilment, to be happy in other words, we would like to determine what we create, how we create and with what we create; this holds equally for teaching, learning, researching and by extension discussing. Although some could argue that the work place, in this case the university is not that important a site in our lives, home is more important. But honestly, we spend so much of our time and energy here, that it would be foolish to argue that it has no bearing on our happiness; some amount of thinking should make this seem self-evident. So then assuming that for happiness it is necessary for this space in its capacity as a workplace be fulfilling, we can contend that: it is important for us to have a say in the decisions that determine its running. So if new changes are being imposed into its structure, we as the people who work here, and to whom by extension this place belongs, have the right to not accept these changes, and even to remodel older structures. What determines our likes and dislikes is the ability or inability of these structures to gives us space for the fulfilment of our creativity.

In this framework of ‘those who work’ in the university, students are an uncomfortable fit. When the teachers view them, or the administration, the students are either consumers or products. They are paying for a commodity, education, which they should get – so if teachers go on strike, they break the producer-consumer pact. Or it is the task of the teachers to prepare students for the market, so if they go on strike, they are hindering production. When individuals situated in the university, as subjects, look at the university, they see that while for those who “work” here it is the permanent site of labour, for the majority of the students, it fails to have any connotations of finality. Studenthood is a temporary state, a purgatorial interlude that precedes entry into the heaven of work and salaries. When one tries to “politicize” this space, one of the main problems one faces is that students do not feel that they have much to gain by its improvement – “I’m here only for one more year.”

A substantial number of professors have been cribbing about the semester system, but there is not much they can do. They are afraid to go on strike, because they themselves feel that by hindering production and by breaking the consumer pact they will be ‘harming careers’ and might bring the wrath of the ministry on them. On there own, they cannot stop these developments. They need to communicate with the students, establish a bond altogether different from the pedagogic one that exists right now. They need to be able to think about students differently, students as part of the same continuum as they, working in the university, desiring fulfilment, affected by what affects the teachers. In a system where value is eternally deferred, the formal manifestation being exchange value, even when they start getting salaries they don’t get fulfilment. What is common to the time when they will get salaries and now, is that in both realms they labour, work, make use of their creativity, and in circumstances that they do not determine.

If I were to translate ‘creativity’ in the register that agitational politics usually makes use of: it is nothing but our capacity and need to labour. Understanding creativity like this would allow us to elaborate upon the nature of the said continuum. When Marx says ‘working class,’ does he mean only the ‘male, white, industrial proletariat?’ Maybe. But what was the logic behind designating somebody a worker? The working class is that section of the people on which work is imposed; the people who are alienated from their creativity, who are forced to create in circumstances that they do not want to create in, and who as a result will have to fight to be able to determine these circumstances. There was another concept, that Marx often made use of: the collective worker. The collective worker is this continuum, a continuum beyond localized time or space, of the working class subjectivity. The collective worker is a universal, common to all those on whom work is imposed. Work is imposed on the collective worker: the collective worker is made of various people on whom work is imposed in various ways; in a different way in the factory, in a different way in agriculture, in a different way in the university, in a different way in the household. So work is imposed on the professor in one way. We propose that work is imposed on the student in another. Studenthood is a phase in the life of this ‘collective worker.’ It doesn’t matter if some students come from rich households, if some will go on to become factory owners, or vice chancellors, at the moment of studenthood they are part of the collective worker. Professors and students are part of the same continuum. They together occupy the university, and in fighting for self-determination they are essentially on the same side. So in opposition to the student as a consumer, and the student as a product, is the student as worker. That the student does not create ‘value’ does not matter, because capitalism decides what is valuable and what is not: but this does not change the fact that work is imposed upon the student.

Anyhow, we need self-determination for happiness, and for self-determination we have to fight. The tribal in Chhattisgarh might need to fight the police, multinationals, and the armed forces for self-determination, the factory worker will need to fight the factory owner, we have to fight the administration, the vice chancellor for instance. If students, teachers and Karamcharis work in the university, what right has any random person to determine what will happen here? The Vice Chancellor and his pals are not elected representatives; they come in through mechanisms in which we have no say. Today we might be fighting the semester system, or the service regulations, or against the attendance rule, fee-hike or for timely payment of karamchari salaries, but we also need to fight the arbitrariness with which these problems impose themselves upon us. It is not enough to say that the vice-chancellor should not bring in the semester system, we have to ask why the vice-chancellor should do anything at all? If there has to be an administrative body, then we should elect it, and have the power of immediate recall, if what we don’t want to happen happens. Of course all this is a long way off, but are we even ready to think our problems through? If we don’t push further than questioning a move here or a move there, we should know that till there is an administration, such things will happen.

What about political students’ organizations: essentially left organizations. How do they see the university and the students? They too seem to not think of the university as a valid site for struggle. For them it seems, the struggle is always somewhere else: in the forest, or in the factory or in slums? Of course it is there. It needs to be fought there. But it is also here. And it needs to be fought here as well. The university is not a place where activists are to be made to go and fight elsewhere. Unless we bring the struggle home, fight the particular forms of power that we face, transformation can never happen. I don’t intend to be vituperative; these are not charges. It is just an appeal to rethink the aims of struggle in the university.

Someone could ask, ‘what if we do get this right to determine what happens here? What if we are allowed to elect our own administration? Does this mean our problems are over?’ No, of course not. If we struggle merely for power to regulate, it won’t take us anywhere. Once we gain it, instead of the current administration some of us will be mediating between the market and the university. The outside, which will continue to be a problem, arbitrary, based on the idea of profit, not human happiness, will still determine us. Self-determination will not be complete in this localized fashion. Our demand for self-determination at a local level can only be tactical, not the final end. People everywhere face the problem that we face here, in different forms, in different degrees; but essentially the same. True self-determination, true democracy can only come when the structure that centres this dynamic is destroyed. People struggling in their respective circumstances, for self-determination, will finally need to come together to push the struggle to its culmination. But this is a somewhat larger matter. We start with what we face, with the local structure through which power tries to determine our lives. In the process we will of course, as Laclau would say, solve a number of small problems, make our lives in the university a little better, bring a greater degree of democracy here, but we must keep in mind that these small things are not the end, because the end is that which seems impossible right now; this impossible can be made possible, through an act which will retroactively make its own impossibility the condition of its possibility, shifting the horizon of possibility altogether.


  1. […] society and in relation to the working class, for example the group Correspondence – click HERE for their […]

  2. […] September 6, 2010 in Students I was poking around Google this morning when I stumbled across a pamphlet, published in India in March of this year, called “The Student as a Worker.” […]

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