Rahul Gupta

Distributed as a pamphlet for Radical Notes’ meeting on December 12, 2015 in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

The threat of scrapping the non-NET fellowships brought out many different reactions. (1) Those who plan to start MPhil/PhD programs in the future, of course felt themselves under threat — to fund their future research work, they would likely have to take more money from parents, or find more loans, or more outside jobs… (2) Others joined in solidarity, linking it with their own precarious conditions within and outside the university… (3) But for some, it was above all a case of ‘education under attack’.

Following the first and second reactions, conversations sprang up around the subject of a wage. It was argued that the work done by researchers was, after all, productive, so why should it not be paid for? These conversations represented an attempted political process, which starts by recognising the terms of our exploitation, and moves in the direction of its abolition. They thereby challenged the notion of education as a public good, to be paid for by a socially responsible government. Meanwhile, that notion was defended by the traditional rhetoric of ‘saving’ education from the attack of commodification.

As this week’s mobilisation against the WTO-GATS conference goes ahead, the dominant narrative goes along the lines of defending the university from the excesses of global capital, resisting privatization and preserving it as a public institution. But what really is it that we are being told to preserve? Surely not its autonomy from the market — that ship has sailed. The involvement of the university in the Indian labour market dates back at least to the requirements of the colonial administration under British rule. But as capitalism has developed, the nature of that involvement was such that even before liberalisation of the Indian economy, the university as we know it was specifically associated with secure professions — doctors, scientists, lawyers, professors. Yet things are hardly so secure now, with most graduates ending up in precarious jobs, such as copy-editors, IT engineers, research assistants and temporary teachers.

The university has never been free of the grip of the labour market which, at different times, requires different kinds of workers to be produced in what we can call ‘the university factory’. In this factory, a combination of university workers — students, teachers, karamcharis of various kinds — are all put to work. One product is knowledge, to be sold in the form of conferences, publications, etc. The other product is batch-after-batch of workers who file out of the university and into their places in the labour market. Their position in relation to other workers is the material result of the education they have undertaken in the university factory. It is important to note that education that way has a double character: on the one hand, it is a working condition, imposed on the student from start to finish; on the other, it is a commodity, consumed by the student in order to improve her standing in the labour market. In this sense, the ‘university factory’ is also a ‘university shop’.

It is imperative to rid our protest of any nostalgia for the era of state welfare. After all, what is the real difference, we must ask, between paying for our own education, and having it paid for by the state? For in both cases, as we have argued above, education remains a commodity. But let us examine the changing terms of its exchange.

The era when public funding of higher education was being increased was not an era of state benevolence. Instead, the state was increasing its direct investment in the training of a section of the working class, thereby fixing them at a particular place in the social division of labour. But this was no innocent operation of dividing up the skills to divide up the work. It was also a matter of economic and political segmentation. The training and disciplining of a section of workers (called “students”, “researchers”, “graduates”, “engineers” etc) also meant the fixing of their value as labour-power — i.e. the fixing of the level at which their work would be paid for in their jobs after studying — i.e. their wages.

In other words, capital was investing in universities in order to manage a social and technical division of labour whereby university-educated workers were granted a higher standard of living, in exchange for both their student work and the specialised salaried work they would go on to do after university.

But this was based on a lag between that part of the day in which the worker produced for capital and the part of the day in which he (re)produced himself as a worker. Between his production of commodities in the workplace, and his consumption of commodities at home. Between work and leisure. Today, this separation is fast disappearing, but again this is no accident. The proliferation of more and more machinery and technology, such as the internet, have led to change in nature of production-consumption, intimately tying the two together. The lack of a defined work day due to 24X7 infiltration of technology into our everyday collapses the difference between leisure time and production: workers have found themselves producing more and more surplus for capital, such that their wages are more and more minuscule next to their total productivity. This process has driven the measurement of their value as labour-power into a crisis. In effect, capital has found ways to extract surplus-value even at those moments when labour-power is being (re)produced.

How can we see this in the university? Whereas before, the student/researcher worked for the university in exchange for a grant, now she is being told to pay for the privilege of doing the same work. Capital can no longer settle for long-term gains — the gradual production of graduates as labour-power; it must demand immediate payment for the commodity which the student receives — education. The university factory and the university shop collapse into one another.

Neoliberalism is not simply an ideology that puts profit over people, or which replaces ‘social values’ with market prices. It is capital’s reaction to a crisis in the measurement of the value of labour-power. And yet it is not enough to say that this reaction enriches capital at the expense of the student/researcher. After all, economics find their concentrated expression in politics. The price tag which capital is now attaching to research work is above all a tool of segmentation. The income gap, between the tiny number of JRF scholars, and the rest, will deepen. And simultaneously researchers will be in fiercer competition, among themselves and with other workers, for part-time jobs inside/outside the university.

Capital, as it struggles to keep labour-power tied to the value relation, has been forced to reconfigure the social and technical division of labour, segmenting the working class in new ways. The question at this point is not how to force a retreat back to an older segmentation — this is nothing but the affirmation of received hierarchies. The question is how to turn defense into attack.

When we say that students and researchers are workers, we are not saying that we ‘want’ to be workers. And we are not trying to construct an identity under which all struggles can be united. We begin from the premise that as university workers, all our work is exploited, and in fact exploited differentially. From that perspective, the call to ‘save’ education (or to fight for the rights of one segment of workers to get Rs. 8000, another to get 12000 etc) is nothing more than a call to preserve segmentations and a submission to the law of value.

Why should we become negotiators? Why should we become the agents of neoliberalism, standing up to capital, declaring proudly, “You miscalculated my value. My value is in fact Rs. 8000”?! In contrast to this, the demand for a living wage for all is interesting. By demanding that all the work we do must be paid for — whether ‘skilled’ or ‘unskilled’, whether ‘manual’ or ‘mental’, whether ‘productive’ or ‘reproductive’ — not only are we announcing the inability of capital to fix our value, we are rejecting outright the neoliberal logic of more-and-more segmentations.

The actual breaking of segmentation of course cannot be achieved by one demand. It also cannot simply be performed through democratic processes… general body meetings… consensus-building efforts… The task is to build a process which sharpens antagonisms between all segments (between students, teachers, karamcharis, and within each of these groups too) with the aim of their destruction. This antagonistic process, which we can call a general assembly or council, can only be imagined if we reject the hopeless consensus-building practices we have got so used to.


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