Flow of Ideas


A paper prepared for the Praxis & Pedagogy Research Seminar, The Graduate School of Creative Arts and Media (GradCAM), Dublin, Ireland, 25th May 2011

Glenn Rikowski, University of Northampton

“A moving aria for a vanished style of mind
A noble debut tackling vertiginous demands
Has absence ever sounded so eloquent so sad
I doubt it?”
(Scott Walker, lyrics to ‘Cossacks Are’, from The Drift, 2006)

“Capital is presented as if it were an extra-human thing and labor a human thing, rather than labor as an extra-human thing and capital as what humans are ... [For] ... in a society dominated by money, I am money. I am an embodied manifestation of money in all its contradictory manifestations.”
(Michael Neary and Graham Taylor, Money and the Human Condition, 1998, p.130 and p.128 – original emphasis)


The world over, individuals are urged by governments, mainstream economists and business representatives to invest in their own human capital. Governments become paranoid regarding the quality of human capital within their borders, with the capacities of their education and training systems for delivering human capital unto businesses to desired specifications under constant review and reform. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) persistently urges its 34 nation state members to enhance the quality of human capital.

In terms of composing economic strategy and generating competitiveness in the context of global capitalism enmeshed within neoliberal ideology and policies occasioned with desperate quests to boost human quality through education and training systems, it is tempting to offer analysis, advice and criticism only. Does this or that policy for developing human capital ‘work’? Will these particular education and training policies give country X comparative advantage in the race to establish the most talented, creative, productive, hard-working, flexible, willing and able national labour force in the known universe? And so on.

The opening sections of this paper move in this ‘noisy’ (labour) market sphere (as Marx called it), and speaks in mainstream academic and well-rehearsed tones. Thereafter, the paper descends into the abyss of capital’s subterranean project for its willing human victims and considers the horror contained within the notion of ‘human capital’: the human as a form of capital. It is a project that has many risks for capital and its human representatives, as we shall see. For representatives of human labour in capitalist society, the idea of human capital is both something to embrace (as they ‘make their way’ within capital’s form of life; make themselves stronger for labour-market competition and therefore experience vistas on the ‘good life’ engendered by dancing with capital), and to dread (as they become capital, thereby denying their love of humankind). As we live in capitalist society the choices that we make on this issue are tragic and compromised: to become capital or to humanise our souls. We live this tragedy daily.

Thus, the paper opens on familiar grounds: with a brief consideration of human capital; its nature and historical roots. Preliminary investigations reveal that it is a seriously flawed concept as hawked around in classical political economy and contemporary mainstream labour economics and the economics of education. Section 2 focuses on how the concept of human capital has infected education and training debates and policies, exploring a specific aspect of these: the knowledge economy. This section reviews some arguments advanced in The Global Auction by Brown, Lauder and Ashton (2011). This book indicates how the knowledge economy as economic and education strategy for countries in the European Union and North America is inflated with ungrounded hope. Furthermore, it will be argued that mainstream commentators have misunderstood the relation between education and the knowledge economy. This misunderstanding can lead to education policy blunders for the promoters of the knowledge economy in times of crisis, such as now.

The third section is something of a red herring, but transhumanism and the posthuman are concepts and real developments that sometimes figure as reference points for an altered and radically different form of the human or post-humanity. This section dispels the easy technological and scientific determinisms that these notions can engender, and is therefore a necessary step in the argument.

Section 4 develops my own ideas on the constitution of the human via the works of Karl Marx, Moishe Postone (1996) and my own work on labour power and education – (Rikowski, 2002a-b and 2003) supplemented with a critique of the Capitorg (from Kim, 2006) (Section 5), which consolidates these ideas. The final section re-emphasises the radical duality in our lives on the basis of the constitution of the human in capitalist society.

1. Human Capital

“The 20th century became the human-capital century. No nation today – no matter how poor – can afford not to educate its youth at the secondary school level and beyond” (Goldin, 2003, p.1 – original emphasis).

Those writing official documents on education, training and lifelong learning for the New Labour government from 1997-2010 certainly took the concept of human capital to heart. I undertook a study of reports, Green Papers, White Papers, Bill and Acts of Parliament on reforms in further education and training and lifelong learning for the 1998-2004 period (summarised in Rikowski, 2004). The development of human capital for competitive advantage in the global economic arena, the need for individuals to invest in their human capital and the apparent necessity for schools and colleges to aid and ensure, all of this was asserted in these documents. My analysis of New Labour’s Green Paper of 2001, Schools – Building on Success (Rikowski, 2001), indicated that human capital development ‘is at the foundation of New Labour’s education policy’ – and schools had their part to play too.

A five minute Google search yielded a number of documents putting forth the case for human capital development being at the heart of education and training policy in Ireland, thereby aiding productivity and the flow of high quality labour power into the Irish labour market in order to meet the ‘global challenge’ of ‘the shift in economic power to Asia’ (Duffy, O’Mara and Duggan, 2007, p.4). Bergin and Kearny (2004) put forward the case for human capital investment in Ireland as part of their strategy for the nation’s economic growth. To this end, they argued for the need to measure the stock of human capital in Ireland (whilst acknowledging some methodological problems in doing this, pp.4-7), and for empirical studies of the relationship between human capital and growth (p.7). They were obviously not deterred by Alison Wolf’s (2002) findings that there was no strong relationship between investment in human capital via national education and training systems and economic growth.

The following sub-section offers a brief history of the development of human capital theory. This is followed by a critical analysis of the concept (which will be developed further in Section 4).


One of the classic texts on the history of the concept of human capital is B.F. Kiker’s (1972) essay on its historical roots. Kiker traced the use of the concept back to Sir William Petty, Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, Nassau Senior, Friedrich List, Johann von Thünen, Ernst Engel and other classical economists (p.3). Simon Marginson added John Locke and Thomas Hobbes to the list of the progenitors of the concept and theory of human capital (1997, pp.103-104). Kiker noted that there was a concern amongst these economists to ‘estimate the value of human beings’ and that there were two broad approaches to this: ‘the cost-of-production and the capitalized-earnings approach’ (1972, p.3).

The first of these is concerned with the costs of ‘producing’ a human being (net of maintaining the human). There are echoes of this today in the mass media when it is pointed out how much parents shell out on their children, and what the real costs of compulsory schooling are, for example. Kiker noted that Sir William Petty was one of the first classical economists to try to calculate the ‘money value of a human being’ (Ibid.). For Petty, labour was the source of all value, so it was a logical step to try to measure the labour that went into ‘producing’ a human being. Kiker went on to relate how Ernst Engel, following the cost-of-production approach, sought to measure how much it cost parents to rear a child. Engel devised a formula for the calculation (see Kiker, 1972, p.4) of this cost which could be applied to specific ages of the child.

The second approach sought to calculate the ‘present value of an individual’s future income stream (either net or gross of maintenance)’ (Kiker, 1972, p.3). Contemporary concerns with the ‘rate of return’ on investments in education and training for individuals (e.g. future earnings) or groups (e.g. GDP growth) hark back to this approach. William Farr tried to calculate the ‘present value of an individual’s net future earnings (future earnings minus personal living expenses)’ (Kiker, 1972, p.4). As Kiker noted:

“Farr’s capitalized-earnings approach was the first truly scientific procedure and is the one followed today by the majority of economists for evaluating human beings. His work, and that of Dublin and Lotka, [1] should be starting points for anyone interested in determining either human-capital values or their components” (1972, p.22).

Adam Smith combined the two approaches to some extent, though in maintaining that the value of a commodity ‘is a function of the labor involved in its production’ (Kneller, 1968, p.24), Smith stood more firmly in the cost-of production camp. Smith brought education into the picture more decisively. He argued that human capital was given greater value by education. Furthermore, the value of education could be measured: first for individuals in terms of the additional earnings they gained through education (the ‘rate of return’); and secondly by its cost. Education became ‘investment in the self’, and it was ‘to be another 200 years before this became systematised in education programmes’ (Marginson, 1997, p.104).

Yet from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s, there was reluctance to talk about ‘human capital’, or the notion that humans could be ranked in terms of their economic worth to the extent of placing monetary values on their heads. Adam Smith ‘boldly included all of the acquired and useful abilities of all the inhabitants of a country as part of capital’ according to Schultz (1971a, p.26), but later economists had reservations. Firstly, Alfred Marshall, an influential economist of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century thought the concept of human capital to be ‘unrealistic’ according to Kiker (1972, p.2). Marshall held that:

“… while human beings are incontestably capital from an abstract and mathematical point of view, it would be out of touch with the market place to treat them as capital in practical analyses” (Schultz, 1971a, p.26).

Humans could not be bought and sold like other commodities: that implied a slave-owning society; not a ‘modern’ (capitalist) society.

Secondly, there were moral considerations. Echoing Adam Smith, Theodore Schultz argued that:

“Economists have long known that people are an important part of the wealth of nations. Measured by what labor contributes to output, the productive capacity of human beings is now vastly larger than all other forms of wealth taken together. What economists have not stressed is the simple truth that people invest in themselves and that these investments are very large. Although economists are seldom timid in entering on abstract analysis and are often proud of being impractical, they have not been bold in coming to grips with this form of investment. Whenever they come even close, they proceed gingerly as if they were stepping into deep water. Deep-seated moral and philosophical issues are ever present. Free men are first and foremost the end to be served by economic endeavour; they are not property or marketable assets” (1971a, p.25).

He noted ‘the mere thought of investment in human beings is offensive to some … [For] … our values and beliefs inhibit us from looking upon human beings as capital goods, except in slavery, and this we abhor’ (Ibid.). Ten years ago, when I was talking about human capital in another presentation a voice from the audience complained that they did not like the idea of being thought of as a ‘lump of human capital’. But Schultz went on to argue that such sensitivity was misplaced; as people invested in themselves they widened the realm of freedom by generating more choices open to them (via higher earnings and more job opportunities). Furthermore, through acquiring more skills and knowledge, workers become capitalists, notes Schultz (1972, p.27) as these have economic value (a position I argue against in Rikowski, 2002a, pp.122-123).

The writings of Schultz, Gary S. Becker and Mark Blaug in the 1960s and 1970s rekindled significant interest in human capital theory in labour economics. It was at this time also that the economics of education as a distinct academic specialism gained momentum. One of the drivers behind these developments was the articulation of modernisation theory; a theory designed to aid developing nations to become advanced, fully fledged capitalist nations. In modernisation theory, the development of human capital through the reform and enhancement of education and training capabilities is a key element. Advanced capitalist countries also carved out an economic mission for education and training policies from the 1960s. As Marginson noted:

“When the economisation of educational governance finally took place in the early 1960s, informed as it was by a politicised human capital theory, it was the birth of a new faith” (1997, p.106).

From there, Marginson goes on to describe the 1960s as ‘First Wave Human Capital Theory’. The main theoretical assumptions underpinning how governments viewed human capital theory during that time were:

“Education leads to productivity which leads to higher wages; investment in education leads to economic growth” (Ibid.).

He proceeded to identity three further stages in how governments viewed and used human capital theory in their education and training polices:

* The Screening Theory Phase (1970s-1980s)

* The Second Wave Human Capital Theory (1980s), and

* The Market liberal human capital theory (1980s-1990s) (Ibid) [2].

Rather than going into these here, I want to draw attention to a basic but significant point.

Since the burgeoning of the Industrial Revolution and the development of capitalist society in England, Scotland, Belgium and then in other countries the world over, the concept of human capital has been with us, in classical economics right through to today’s labour economics and the economics of education. As David Renton (2001) makes clear, globalisation is inherent in the concept of capital itself: capital moves, expands globally, sweeping away traditions, pre-capitalist economic forms and modes of life. Karl Marx was well aware of this:

“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life (Marx and Engels, 1848, p.83).”

One of these ‘conditions of life’ that humans have to face is that they are a form of capital: human capital. But at this stage in the argument the full horror of this predicament has not been uncovered. The Capitorg lurks in the background. Human capital is not just a fancy theory spawned from mainstream economics: it is a crucial part of life in capitalist society; more, it is part of us. Mainstream theorists of human capital do not take their own master concept seriously enough.


Human capital: so what is it? The theorists of human capital are rather coy regarding saying what it is [3], but the following will do as a starting point: human capital is:

“A loose catch-all term for the practical knowledge, acquired skills and learned abilities of an individual that make him or her potentially productive and thus equip him or her to earn income in exchange for labor” (Johnson, 2000, p.1).

A point to note here is that this definition rests on cognitive abilities: knowledge, skills and learned abilities – the stuff of education and training, though it does not preclude these being developed in other institutions (e.g. family, religious life, or leisure time). However, by implication, the definition yields tremendous power and significance to education and training institutions in the generation of human capital.

There is a serious flaw in the concept [4], however, which is half-acknowledged by mainstream labour economists and human capital theorists. This is that attitudes (principally work and social attitudes) and personality traits are either deliberately excluded from definitions of human capital, or their significance is left unclear. The importance of this point will be uncovered more fully in sections 4 and 5.

For now, it can be noted that Mark Blaug, a key contemporary European figure in human capital theory, has indicated that education can have an impact on the development of attitudes and personality traits through the ‘hidden curriculum' (1992, p.213) in schools and other educational institutions. Blaug refers to the work of Bowles and Gintis (1976), who demonstrated how high schools nurture and develop work attitudes and personality traits consonant with those required for working in capitalist labour processes, at various levels in the labour market. Blaug noted that:

“… the ‘hidden curriculum’ of teacher-pupil relations in academic-style education has as much to do with the world of work as the explicit curriculum of mental and manipulative skills in vocational educational … [For] … the truth of the matter is that most jobs in a modern economy require about as much cognitive knowledge and psychomotor skills as are used to drive an automobile!” (1992, p.213).

Nevertheless, whilst showing that Bowles and Gintis (1976) criticised the economists of education of the 1960s for arguing that the economic value of education was entirely due to cognitive learning in schools, Blaug confessed that, for mainstream economists of education, ‘their writings lent themselves naturally to the cognitive-knowledge interpretation’ (p.214).

Marginson (1997) also pointed towards the neglect by human capital theorists of issues relating to motivation in their models of how investment in human capital related to job productivity. My own research in the early 1980s, on the recruitment of engineering apprentices, found that engineering employers ranked work attitudes, social attitudes (e.g. being co-operative) and personality traits above cognitive recruitment criteria (see Rikowski, 2000, pp.14-16). Other studies came up with similar conclusions regarding the recruitment of young workers (as listed in Rikowski, 2000, p.16).

Such considerations led Marginson (1997) to conclude that:

“The popular narrative of investment in education, calling up subject positions based on dreams of wealth and status, became entrenched as one of the great modern myths, transcending the need for empirical verification. It was a myth that proved highly functional in politics and government. It placed responsibility for the productivity of labour on the individual employee, and on education programmes, and diminished the responsibility of employers and work organisations, thus protecting negative freedom and managerial prerogatives” (p.118).

Johnson meanwhile, is apologetic for the concept of human capital:

“The figurative use of the term capital in connection with what would perhaps better be called the "quality of labor" is somewhat confusing. In the strictest sense of the term, human capital is not really capital at all. The term was coined so as to make a useful illustrative analogy between investing resources to increase the stock of ordinary physical capital (tools, machines, buildings, etc.) in order to increase the productivity of labor and "investing" in the education or training of the labor force as an alternative means of accomplishing the same general objective of higher productivity. In both sorts of "investment", costs are incurred by investors in the present in the expectation of deriving extra benefits over a long period of time in the future” (Johnson, 2000, p.1 – my emphasis) [5].

However, it would be wrong to conclude from this that the concept of human capital is hopeless and that, anyway, human capital theorists ‘don’t really mean it’, and we are not really capital! Hey, it’s just an illustrative analogy! But what if its literal meaning is spot on: that is, we actually are human capital, the human as a form of capital; capital as a form of human life?

Sections 4 – 6 take these ideas further. The following section relates the concern with human capital formation to a specific economic strategy for its focus: the knowledge economy.

2. The Knowledge Economy

“Headhunters, venture capitalists, dot.coms – even your customers and friends – are coming after you. What do they want? Nothing less than your brain. And they’ll do anything to get it” (Devin Leonard, 2000, They’re coming to take you away, Fortune, 29th May, p.35).

“… we need to redesign our economies to release their potential for creating and spreading knowledge throughout our populations” (Charles Leadbeater, Living on Thin Air: the new economy, 1999, p.10).

For the UK government specifically, and the European Union in general, the idea of generating a knowledge economy relates closely to the notion of nurturing specific forms of human capital [6]. Thus, the concept of human capital has been welded onto a specific economic strategy for dealing with the challenges from China and Asian economies. But before this point is pursued further, I shall provide a working definition of the ‘knowledge economy’.

The concept of the knowledge economy has been defined variously. It was an area that I explored during 1999-2001 as part of the project of writing The Battle in Seattle: Its Significance for Education (Rikowski, 2001b). As Ruth Rikowski (Rikowski [R], 2000a) has indicated, attempting to pin down the “knowledge economy” is like swimming in soup. On the one hand, the weight of the vast array of related concepts makes progress towards understanding exactly what the ‘knowledge economy’ is difficult; and on the other hand its banality is breathtaking.

On the first point, Ruth Rikowski shows that in defining what the ‘knowledge economy’ is we are faced with the task of differentiating it from a lot of background noise. Related concepts include: the information economy, the Digital Age, the Information Age, knowledge capitalism, the learning economy, the e-economy, e-commerce, e-business, the new economy, the modern economy – the list could be further extended (Rikowski, [R], 2000b gives other examples). On the second point, definitions of the knowledge economy often rest merely on saying something exceedingly banal: such as, ‘knowledge has become the primary ingredient of what we make, do, buy and sell’ (Stewart, 1998, p.12). Here, the knowledge economy is an economy where knowledge is the ‘one factor of production, sidelining both capital and labour’ (Drucker, 1998, p.15). Stewart (1998, p.6) has a similar notion, where knowledge and communication (as opposed to natural resources and physical labour) are the ‘fundamental sources of wealth’. This corroborates Leadbeater’s (1999) notion of the ‘weightless economy’ where individuals live on ‘thin air’ (or maybe hot air).

The idea of the knowledge (or new) economy was very much part of the ‘millennial fever’ which threw up a number of hyper-modern sounding theories and ideas and led to a boom in popular science books, especially on the concept of time. Examination of Neef’s (1998) edited collection on The Knowledge Economy, one of the leading works on the topic of its day, does not readily yield up succinct definitions of the phenomenon. Interestingly, the UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) (as it was known in the late 1990s) provided a more complex portrayal of the knowledge economy than the e-academics. Indeed, the DTI argued that cool definitions emphasising the ‘weightless economy’ miss much of the substance of the knowledge economy:

“Terms such as de-industrialisation, globalisation, the information age, the digital or weightless economy all capture elements of what we observe. The knowledge driven economy is a more general phenomenon, encompassing the exploitation and use of knowledge in all production and service activities, not just those sometimes classified as high-tech or knowledge intensive” (DTI, 1998, Introduction, para 1.6).

For the DTI, it follows from this that:

“In the global economy, capital is mobile, technology spreads quickly and goods can be made in low cost countries and shipped to developed markets. British business therefore has to compete by exploiting capabilities which competitors find hard to imitate. The UK’s distinctive capabilities are not raw materials, land or cheap labour. They must be our knowledge, skills and creativity [DTI, 1998, Our Competitive Future: Building the Knowledge Economy] (Abell and Oxbrow, 1999, p.116).

In the Third Millennium Lecture at 10 Downing Street (23rd May, 1999), David Potter, Chairman of Psion, argued that the knowledge economy can be viewed as an economy where knowledge (intellectual capital) is the primary source of value:

“[We] are in the relatively early phases of a major economic revolution. This revolution is based around the concept of a post industrial era where making things is increasingly automated and routine, creating things is difficult and value therefore derives from creation and from the intellectual capital or knowledge base of the firm or nation. Furthermore, I believe that as a nation we are not engaged in or participating at the frontier of this change” (Potter, 1999, p.7).

Charles Leadbeater echoed aspects of Potter’s picture of the knowledge economy when he states that:

“… knowledge capitalism is the most powerful creative force we have yet developed to make people better off – something it does by generating and spreading intelligence in the usable form of products and services” (1999, pp.9-10).

But perhaps the most succinct definition comes from TFPL. It incorporates many of the aspects highlighted in definitions above whilst holding that the knowledge economy is at an early stage of development:

“Knowledge economies are emerging in the western world where knowledge, expertise, and innovation are now the primary asset and key competitive advantage” (TFPL, 1999, p.2).

This shall be a useful working definition for this paper. Certainly, as various chapters in Ruth Rikowski’s (2007) edited collection indicate, knowledge is now seen by many leading companies as a resource that has to be managed. Companies need to have detailed accounts of the types of knowledge they posses, how it is used in the production of commodities and how it can be used to create new value, new products and new market opportunities. Even in the world of education, some such as Sallis and Jones (2001) have explored how techniques of knowledge management can be applied to educational institutions with the aim of enhancing teaching and learning.

Simons and Masschelein (2008) argue that the knowledge economy implies the ‘technological application of knowledge’ (p.398). However, this formulation creates more problems than it solves. It begs the question of when this began. In tracing the beginnings of the knowledge economy, Joel Mokyr (2002) places its origins in the rise of the factory system in the early phases of the Industrial Revolution. Maybe Arthur C. Clarke got it right in his 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick and Clarke, 1968) in the ‘Dawn of Man’ scene as portrayed by Stanley Kubrick in the film of the same name.

As well as conceptual problems and questions of origins associated with the knowledge economy [7], a number of critics have pointed out difficulties and problems in producing human capital for a knowledge economy in European countries. Firstly, Macdonald (2005), exploring the situation in schools in England, indicates the huge cultural changes [8] required and significant investment (especially in ICT) if schools are to be geared up for generating the ‘innovative and creative’ workers required by the knowledge economy [9]. Macdonald is not optimistic regarding government making the requisite changes to the schools system. He places his faith in parents and business representatives lobbying for such change.

Secondly, Allen and Ainley (2011) argue that the knowledge economy looks to be ‘running out of steam’ (p.7). They note that, rather than a growth in knowledge workers, the key areas for growth in the UK labour market (based on UK Trade Union Congress data) are lower paid and relatively low-skilled service jobs. Recent U.S. data shows some increase in jobs with $75,000-plus salaries in areas like ‘software engineering’ and ‘medical scientists’ – but a much bigger increase in ‘personal care’ and ‘home aids’ and similar jobs on circa $20,000 per annum. Labour Force Survey data for the UK indicates 8 million people in ‘knowledge intensive’ jobs and 20 million workers outside this charmed circle (Allen and Ainley, 2011, pp.7-8).

Thirdly, the work of Brown, Lauder and Ashton (2011) has caused quite a stir in the UK national press, and amongst education researchers and writers. Based on research done over a number of years, and in a range of countries (including China and India), they concluded that countries in Europe and North America seeking to gain competitive advantage by investing more in education and training, in their human capital, may be in for a shock. Knowledge-intensive jobs have become a global phenomenon, with businesses in many countries bidding for ‘top talent’ knowledge workers. Thus, producing high quality knowledge workers in Europe may see increasing numbers of them working in countries where their skills are valued more. Furthermore, China and India in particular are building up their own higher education capabilities: it cannot be assumed (as the knowledge economy idea does) that the design, creative and cognitive aspects of work will be located in Europe and North America, whilst China, India and other relatively low-wage (but rapidly developing) countries will be content with low-value work with a relatively low knowledge content. Thus: the ‘good jobs’ that those who receive higher education take as their right could start to dwindle. After reading Brown, Lauder and Ashton’s The Global Auction, Peter Wilby, writing in The Guardian concluded that:

““Knowledge work”, supposedly the west’s salvation, is now being exported like manual work. A global mass market in unskilled labour is being quickly succeeded by a market in middle-class work, particularly for industries such as electronics, in which so much hope of employment opportunities and high wages was invested. As supply increases, employers inevitably go to the cheapest source. A chip designer in India costs 10 times less than a US one … Brown, Lauder and Ashton call this “digital Taylorism”” (Wilby, 2011, pp.1-2).

Wilby argues that ‘the west’ cannot revitalise its economic prospects through education. He expects a ‘permanent reduction’ in British living standards. When people realise this, Wilby expects neoliberalism to be almost ‘entirely discredited’.

Finally, as Terry Wrigley (2011) has explained, education policies informed by such notions as lifelong learning and the knowledge economy have the effect of narrowing down education to preparation for employability in the capitalist labour market:

“Colleges of further education had always been geared to economic needs, but increasingly university students were conscious of the need to maximise their employment prospects and universities steered towards short-term fulfilment of employers’ requirements. New policies on “lifelong learning”, loaded with the rhetoric of “flexibility” and “a knowledge economy”, meant funding for a wider adult education disappeared” (Wrigley, 2011, p.12).

The almost exclusive concentration on employers’ needs leads to the marginalisation of other aims of education (e.g. personal development, critical enquiry, active citizenship, leisure and creativity, social benefits to the wider society etc.) argues Wrigley. Thus: the drive of the knowledge economy is to narrow the scope of education, its aims and purposes.

I would add an additional point to these conventional criticisms of the knowledge economy as economic strategy and educational and training programme. Education and training is itself part of the knowledge economy, in my view. It is not just the case of educating and training being for the knowledge economy (as Macdonald conceives it, for example). Education and training are key export earners. Johnes (2004), exploring the export of educational services in the UK, calculated that the global value of education and training exports was £10,264.3 million in 2001-02. Higher education students from overseas brought in the biggest chunk of export earnings. An update by Lenton (2007) for 2003-04 discovered that £4.3 billion was brought into the UK by higher education institutions in London alone. With data like these, cuts to higher education budgets and making it unnecessarily difficult for overseas students to get study visas would seem to be undermining a significant element in the UK’s knowledge economy [10]. Duffy, O’Mara & Duggan (2007) pointed to the relatively disappointing record of Ireland regarding its educational exports:

“The value of exports of Ireland’s educational services was €300million in 2005, which is modest compared with Australia, where education is the country’s fourth export earner and was worth in the region of AUS$5.6billion (€3.3bn) to the economy in 2003-04” (p.6).

Whilst the former New Labour government in the UK berated independent schools for not bringing in more privately educated students from overseas to boost educational exports in the schools sector (Rikowski, 2007a). For:

“New Labour wants to wean our ‘great public schools’ off charitable status, but in a way which forces them to become international megastars; top-notch brands in the educational firmament that brings significant export earnings to the UK” (Rikowski, 2007a, p.2).

3. Transhumanism and Posthumanism [11]

“I am here – uploaded and unafraid Of the technology great minds have made; The projects of dreams: now reality, Are revered by few but embraced by me” (Extract from E. Shaun Russell’s, Sonnet On Future Progress).

“If, as I believe, the distinctive genius of humanity is to establish an identity which lies at an ever-increasing distance from our organic nature, we should rejoice in the expression of human possibility in ever-advancing technology” (Ray Tallis, 2007, p.7).

“In this age of triumphant commercialism, technology – with science as its handmaiden – is delivering a series of almost magical inventions that are the most phenomenally lucrative ever seen” (Bill Joy, Why the future doesn’t need us, 2000, p.248).

This section begins to move away from the analysis of human capital and the knowledge economy and education and training policy perspectives – with all their attendant problems and issues – for Ireland, the UK and many other European countries, and to explore the notion of human capital as a serious, substantive idea. That is, the process of the human becoming capital, such that it makes sense to say: I am capital.

However, before doing this I want to get a certain misconception out of the way. Over the last 15 years or so, and especially around the time of the millennium, there has been interest in transhumanism and the posthuman as the ways in which humans are practically being altered and transformed. The prospect is a practical challenge to the constitution of human beings. This development is diverse but comes from four main fields of contemporary science: biotechnology (especially genetic modification of human DNA); cybernetics (in particular connecting microchips up with the human brain or central nervous system); microchip technology, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics; and nanotechnology [12]. I give a many examples of what this might mean for altering the physical nature of human beings in Rikowski (2002a, p.114-118) but especially Rikowski (2003, pp.123-126). Here are just a few, drawn from those papers.

According to Theodore Burger (in Campbell, 1999), the capability exists for building computer chips that act just like nerve cells. From this, argues Campbell computer chips in the brain to boost memory becomes a feasible step. These chips would allow ‘people to “download” large quantities of information instantly, as a computer does from the Internet’, according to neuroscience writer Ray Kurzweil (in Campbell, 1999). Kurzweil, well known for the accuracy of his past predictions on the appliance of science to humans [13], states that:

“By 2050 … computers will be small enough and clever enough to work with people from inside the human brain. We’ll be able to send intelligent machines called nanobots through the bloodstream to the brain. There they will take up positions and they will actually expand our brainpower” (Kurzweil, in Campbell, 1999).

Whilst this technological invasion appears to reconfigure the ‘human’ this is nothing as compared with its opposite; the ‘downloading’ of our consciousness into a computer lodged in a robot. Though much further off, this leaves any conception of what it is to be ‘human’ in limbo. As Bill Joy, cofounder and Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems, ponders:

“But if we’re downloaded into our technology, what are the chances that we will thereafter be ourselves or even human? It seems to me far more likely that a robotic existence would not be like a human one in any sense that we understand, that the robots would in no sense be our children, that on this path our humanity may well be lost” (Joy, 2000, p.244).

Charles Platt argues that if we downloaded our consciousness into a computer then the resulting entities would be ‘isomorphs’ – minds without organs (2000, p.208).

Nanotechnology holds out great promise for medical science and practice. It is the design and manufacture of devices to atomic-scale precision. The potential of the technology is truly phenomenal. For example:

“Using “assemblers”, molecular machines that can place atoms in almost any arrangement compatible with physical law, we will be able to do cell-repair, large-scale space colonization, dirt-cheap (but perfectly clean) production of any commodity, and to build chips the size of a sugar cube yet a million times more powerful than a human brain” (Bostrom, 1998, p.26).

As Natasha Vita-More notes, nanomachines could repair aged tissues and organs. They could even reanimate people who have been frozen in cryonic suspension (und. p.14). With nanotechnology, argues Paul Virilio, the ‘inner core of the living’ is to be equipped with micromachines that can ‘effectively stimulate our faculties’ – including enhanced cognitive capabilities (1995, p.101). Nanobots – tiny machines we could swallow – could be launched into our blood streams. They would ‘supplement our natural immune system and seek out and destroy pathogens, cancer cells, arterial plaque, and other disease agents’ (Kurzweil, 1999, p.176). Nick Bostrom, a philosopher (now at Oxford University, but at the LSE when he wrote this), predicts the creation of “superintelligence” within the next 40 years: a cognitive system that 'drastically outperforms the top present-day humans in every way’ (1998, p.13). Such a system would fuse human cognitive capability with:

“… hardware neural networks, simulate neural networks, classical AI, extracranially cultured tissue, quantum computers, large interconnected computer networks, evolutionary chips, nootropic treatment of the human brain, biological-electronic symbiosis systems or what have you” (Ibid.)

Scary: or not?

Since I wrote these papers referred to earlier (i.e. Rikowski 2002a and 2003), work on ‘smart drugs’ has gathered pace and hit mass media awareness. For example, Margaret Talbot (2009) alerts our attention to the wonders of Adderall; designed as a drug for ADHD, but which can also help anyone to concentrate and study more effectively. Minette Marrin (2010) writes about cognitive enhancement drugs derived from research on Alzheimer’s disease which can also aid the mental capacity and speed of thought for non-sufferers. Professor Barbara Sahakian, a Cambridge neuroscientist working on these drugs admits:

“… that some of her scientific colleagues regularly use cognitive enhancers – such as modafinil – to deal with jet lag, to improve their mental powers or just to get in a good day’s work … Smart pills really do make you smarter and they’re here, for those who can get hold of them” (Marrin, 2010).

Some of these drugs have found their way onto the black market and fallen into the hands and mouths of students about to take exams or write assignments. Maybe soon, students will need to be tested for cognitive enhancement drugs as athletes, cyclists, footballers and other sportspeople are already tested for performance-enhancing drugs.

These kinds of developments are at one with transhumanism and posthumanism: deliberate and science-based attempts to enhance human physical and mental performance and the search for immortality. Transhumanism and posthumanism are not the same, though closely related.

A useful starting point is with the notion of the “transhuman”. This concept posits the contemporary constitution of the ‘human’ as being in a state of radical transition. According to Max More:

“We are transhuman to the extent that we seek to become posthuman and take action to prepare for a posthuman future. This involves learning about and making use of new technologies that can increase our capacities and life expectancy, questioning common assumptions, and transforming ourselves ready for the future, rising above outmoded human beliefs and behaviours” (More, und.).

This definition begs the question of what the “posthuman” is, and this is addressed later. What is clear is that the “transhuman” is a practical process of leaving currently constituted humanity behind. It implies a transition beyond the human condition and human nature (whatever that is).

Transhumanism, on the other hand, carries with it a moral and political challenge: we ought to try to overcome the ‘human’ limitations resulting from our physiology and biological foundations. For Ouroboros (1999, p.4), “transhumanism” is:

“The belief that we can, and should, try to overcome our biological limits by means of reason, science and technology. Transhumanists seek things like intelligence, augmentation, increased strength and beauty, extreme life extension, sustainable mood enhancement and the capability to get offplanet and explore the universe. These goals are to be achieved with the aid of contemporary and future technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, cryonics, megascale and space-time engineering, AI, and mind uploading” (Ouroboros, 1999, p.4).

Max More (und.) has described transhumanism as related philosophies of life that ‘seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and limits’. Science and technology are the principal means to these goals, though for More ‘life-promoting principles and values’ also play a role in transhumanist outlooks. Religion and dogma, on the other hand, are to be avoided. Transhumanism is no religious cult, according to More. It is based rather, on the belief that ‘it is good to improve oneself, physically and mentally’, and to dissolve existing biological and social limits to processes of self-improvement. These limits can be overcome through utilisation of ‘rational’ methods (technology and science) (Transcendo, 1998, p.1). Transhumanists advocate the ‘progressive transformation of the human condition’; there is no end point (Burch, 1998, p.1). Thus:

“Transhumanism sees the present time as one in which the power and subtlety of our tools has grown to the point where we can now turn our tools on ourselves to augment our very nature, a project that promises a super-acceleration of potentiality often referred to as “the singularity”. Transhumanists see the near future as a time in which our technological power of self-transformation will lead to a real transcendence of “human nature” itself. Thus transformed, the far future of humanity holds essentially limitless vistas of expansion into the universe” (Ibid.).

The core goal then, is the transcendence of “human nature”; the practical redefinition of the human.

The “posthuman” is the realisation of the transhumanist project. Transhumanism is a ‘politics of/for the posthuman’; humans actively striving to become post-humans (Rikowski, 2002a, p.116). Posthumans are the goal of transhumanist politics and efforts. Max More defines the “posthuman” in the following way:

“Posthumans have overcome the biological, neurological, and psychological constraints evolved into humans. Posthumans may be partly or mostly biological in form, but will likely be or partly or wholly postbiological – our personalities having been transferred “into” more durable, modifiable, and faster, and more powerful bodies and thinking hardware. Some of the technologies that we currently expect to play a role in allowing us to become posthuman include genetic engineering, neural-computer integration, molecular nanotechnology, and cognitive science” (More, und.).

Burch holds a similar notion of the “posthuman”. He says that ‘I use the word “posthuman” to simply mean what we or our “mind children” will be when we have changed so much that our (or their) state no longer can be accurately called “human” (Burch, in Burch and Toth-Fejel, 1999, p.1).

Another significant term in this lexicon is “posthumanism”. Posthumanism is an ‘attitude on how to deal with the limitations of the human form’ (Ust, und. p.1). It is a tragic feeling or attitude, focusing on the frustrations of life as merely ‘human’. It is the negative side of the positive vision of transhumanism. However, there is much confusion at this point: Ust’s (und.) “posthumanism” sounds very much like More’s “transhumanism” when the former talks about posthumanism as ‘a vision of how to move beyond those limits by the radical use of technological and other means’ (Ust, und. p.1). Posthumanism, for Ust, is also about “human diversity” and techno-transcendence: using technology to overcome limits (human and social).

In Rikowski (2002a, pp.116-118) and more substantially (and better, in my view) in Rikowski (2003, pp.133-142) I provided critiques of trans/post-humanism. I shall not repeat those here, but rather drawns on a general point those critiques uncovered. This is that trans/post-humanist thought fails to situate the monumental and dramatic scientific adaptations of ‘the human’ within the context of capitalist society. Thus, trans/post-human theorists and protagonists largely view the future of the human as being forged by scientific and technological changes. They tend to be, therefore, technological determinists regarding human futures and constitution. As such they fail to inform on the social constitution of the human [14]. The rest of the paper pursues this task.

4. Marx’s Social Universe and Education

“The distinctive mark of human capital is that it is a part of man. It is human because it is embodied in man, and it is capital because it is a source of future satisfactions, or of future earnings, or both” (Schultz, 1971a, p.48).

"And even if we scatter to the stars, isn’t it likely that we may take our problems with us or find, later, that they have followed us? The fate of our species on Earth and our fate in the galaxy seem inextricably linked" (Bill Joy, Why the future doesn’t need us, 2000, p.254).

To my knowledge, the idea of capitalism as a ‘social universe’ was first advanced by Moishe Postone (1996) in his Time, Labor and Social Domination, although the concept is relatively undeveloped by Postone. His most fulsome expression of the concept is as follows:

“As I have shown, Marx argues that capitalism’s social relations are unique in that they do not appear to be social at all. The structure of social relations constituted by commodity-determined labor undermines earlier systems of overt social ties without, however, replacing them with a similar system. Instead, what emerges is a social universe that Marx describes as one of personal independence in a context of objective dependence” (Postone, 1996, p.259 – my emphasis).

This is the social universe we live in: personal independence (the ‘freedom’ of labour in capitalist society), yet within a social context of objective dependence (on capital, even as we, collectively and daily produce it). This is Karl Marx’s social universe, as analysed in Capital.

The substance of this social universe is value (Neary, 2000a-b and 2004; 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, p.83) notes, ‘social energy is permanently being transformed’, 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.).

Work by Michael Neary (2000b and 2004) has added significantly to our understanding of the cosmology of capital, the nature of capital’s social universe. Neary notes that it is clear that Marx thought about his work cosmologically. He held that the law of value as delineated in his Capital was like the law of gravity. On Neary’s account:

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

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

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

The argument here is that value is a social energy field whose effects as a social force are mediated by the movements of capital (in its various forms) and the social relations between capital and labour. These latter, their movements in fact, cause social distortions within this social universe – the social universe of capital.

Social phenomena within capital’s social universe are neither self-maintaining nor constitute stable entities by themselves. The social energy field (value) is constantly at risk of implosion. We ensure its maintenance. Thus: 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, 1867) that creates value and mediates its various transformations and forms of movement (Postone, 1996; Neary, 2000a), firstly into capital on the basis of surplus value, and then the myriad forms of capital springing from surplus value. As Karl Marx (1858, p.361) 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.”

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, which 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 and 2000), 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.

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 remain almost entirely uncharted [15]. 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, 1999).

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.

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 for humanity (and posthumanity) as not-capital, (post)-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 governments and business representatives constantly tell us that they want to re-design us as ever-higher quality human capital. Human capital is the social form that labour power takes in capitalist society (Rikowski, 1999). Capital is incorporated within the ‘human’ itself (Ibid.); it is within us. The implosion and dissolution of the capitalist form (human capital) of the explosive commodity (labour power) necessarily involves changing us, our 'selves'. 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 open enemies of the closed society: capitalism.

Continued on page 2

Next Page
© Copyright, Flow of Ideas, Ruth Rikowski and Glenn Rikowski. Website by [whiteLayer]
Call for Authors
Printer Friendly
Order by DateAlphabetical[Close menu]