Flow of Ideas

Distillation: Education in Karl Marx’s Social Universe

Glenn Rikowski, Senior Lecturer in Education Studies, School of Education, University College Northampton

Lunchtime Seminar, School of Education, University of East London, Barking Campus, Monday 14th February 2005

“Of course the method of presentation must differ in form from that of inquiry. The latter has to appropriate the material in detail, to analyse its different forms of development, to trace out their inner connexion. Only after this work is done, can the actual movement be adequately described. If this is done successfully, if the life of the subject-matter is ideally reflected as in a mirror, then it may appear as if we had before us a mere a priori construction” (Karl Marx, Afterword to the Second German Edition of ‘Capital’, volume 1, 1873, p.28).

Prologue: Autobiography

This paper constitutes a distillation of my work on Marxist educational theory over the last 15 years. A process of distillation in thought and writing involves extracting the essential points from a text or body of work. This entails a kind of purification and concentration of thought and writing. The result is likely to be an epigrammatic, condensed and compressed product, and indeed this is the case here. The result is so compressed that, alluding to Marx’s thoughts about his own work in parts of Capital (in the opening quotation above), it might seem that this paper is a ‘mere a priori construction’, divorced from empirical, historical and education policy studies. Yet the distillation of my work as presented here is founded on a range of empirical, historical and policy-oriented studies going back a quarter of a century. It also rests on periods of theoretical work, especially in relation to reading Marx but also certain Marxist theorists. The rest of this Introduction will provide a brief account of some of these studies.

First, and for me the most important of all, is the research I conducted on the recruitment of engineering apprentices – the channels, methods and criteria of recruitment – in the early 1980s in ‘Midtown’. This involved semi-structured interviews in 107 engineering companies with those responsible for recruiting apprentices. There was also a supplementary case study of a Group Training Scheme for engineering apprentices, and these two studies formed the backbone to my PhD research. Little of this work has been published, though a few pieces of work have emerged from it (e.g. Rikowski, 1992; 1996a and 1996b). These studies inspired a number of the conceptual advances I have made in Marxist educational theory over the last 15 years, and will no doubt continue to be a source of new ideas.

Secondly, also during the early-1980s, I studied the history of industrial training, with special reference to engineering. These studies were undertaken in the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick. They focused on trade union archives, especially those from the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, and the work of the Engineering Industry Training Board. These studies provided tremendous insights into the social relations of training, the role of the state in engineering training and employers’ struggles regarding attempting to maximise control over training whilst seeking to minimise its costs – and the resulting contradictions arising from these strategies. None of this work has been published, and none of it figured in my PhD thesis either. It remains as a set of around 20 A4 notebooks.

Thirdly, from the early- to mid-1980s I examined two employers’ journals in depth, going back to the First World War and up to 1980. These were the journals of the Institute of Personnel Management and the Industrial Society. The titles of the journals changed a number of times over the period. The focus of these studies was to examine employers’ perceptions of young people in general and school leavers in particular, their statements regarding what industry and commerce wanted from young recruits (in terms of skills, personality traits and other attributes) and their perceptions of schools and school life. These studies were undertaken in the Modern Records Centre and in the library of the London School of Economics. A few fragments and examples from this work have found their way into my published work and conference papers (for example, Rikowski, 1999) and there was an abandoned chapter of my PhD thesis set around this work. Otherwise, this work has remained unpublished.

Fourthly, from 1982 to 1985 I was employed by Coventry Local Education Authority as a Research Officer in the Special Programmes Division. This involved carrying out research and evaluation projects on schemes for the young unemployed in the main, but also some work on adult unemployment and the Coventry labour market. This post also gave me access to data from the Coventry Careers Service, including apprenticeship numbers broken down by industrial and commercial sectors. Allied to this, was work undertaken in the Coventry Local Studies Centre on the work of the Education Committee and various sub-committees, especially those relevant to youth unemployment and apprenticeships. This also included a study of the Coventry Evening Telegraph from 1945–1980, focusing on apprenticeships and youth labour market issues. Some of these studies and materials went on to figure in various chapters of my PhD thesis. Overall, they gave me a number of insights into the workings of local youth labour markets and the effects of schemes such as the Youth Opportunities Programme and the Youth Training Scheme on youth un/employment structures and apprenticeship opportunities.

Fifthly, from 1990–1992, whilst working as a lecturer in further education at Epping Forest College, I undertook a series of studies on working students. A report on one of these studies was produced (Rikowski, 1993) and a few copies were sent to university libraries.

Finally, from 1994–1999 and from 1999–2001 I was employed as a researcher in the University of Birmingham School of Education and then University of Central England Faculty of Education, respectively. Working on projects on working students, further education finance, continuing vocational education (CVE) in higher education, student retention, horological training and Education Action Zones in particular provided empirical resources for the development of my theoretical work. Yet once again I have not produced publications based on this work.

Thus, over the last 25 years I have undertaken a range of empirical and historical studies but little of this work has been published. This has been partly intentional. From the early 1990s in particular and then from 1994 especially (when I was employed as a university researcher) I was faced with the dilemma of either ‘pushing the ideas forward’, focusing on the development of Marxist educational theory, or publishing the empirical work in journals. I chose the former, no doubt at the expense of my own career and employment prospects which would have been enhanced had I taken the other road. Producing articles for academic journals based on research projects and empirical work is held in high regard in contemporary academic life as it coincides with departments’ financial and academic goals. The point of this account is that it indicates that I did not develop my Marxist educational theory ex nihilo, out of nothing, sat in an office or in an armchair. I undertook a range of empirical and historical studies. These provided the grounds upon which I developed my theoretical ideas and conceptual tools and against which I could test and refine them. If time ever allows it would be useful to indicate some of the precise connections between these empirical and historical studies the development of my Marxist educational theory.

However, I have produced a number of works that are publicly available and which touch on issues of education policy. The importance of this work, for me, is that it indicates how my Marxist educational theory can be used to explain, critique and enlighten regarding education policies. 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 (Rikowski, 1999; and 2004a), apprenticeship (Rikowski, 1996b-c and 1999), the learning society (Rikowski, 1998), school improvement (Rikowski, 2000b), the ‘needs of industry’ regarding youth labour (Rikowski, 2000a and 2001a), 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). In Marx and the Education of the Future (Rikowski, 2004b) I indicate ways in which Marx’s perspectives on education in his time still have relevance today.

In addition, my Marxist educational theory work has also been brought into contact with certain practices such as the recruitment process (Rikowski, 1990; and 1992) and radical pedagogy (McLaren and Rikowski, 2001; and Rikowski, 2001c) and substantive areas and issues such as social class (Rikowski, 2001d), transhumanism (Rikowski, 2000d, 2002b, and 2003) and time (Neary and Rikowski, 2000 and 2002). Those of my critics who like to paint me as some dislocated theorist tend to ignore this work, though I could not expect them to know about all the empirical studies listed previously as these are not in the public domain.

Having explained the empirical and historical resources used for the development of my work I now turn to some of the key theoretical and intellectual foundations of my work. First, obviously the work of Karl Marx was of crucial importance. Although I read Marx on-and-off since 1979 there were three periods of intensive study. The first of these was in 1982 when I focused on what Marx and Engels said on education and training. I studied all the major works with this end in view. Enough material was gathered on this topic for a book, and I hope to get time to launch into this project. Indeed, a number of people have urged me to do this for a variety of reasons: as a useful guide for students; to fill a vital missing part in Marxist work; and to provide my own work with a firmer foundation. This 1982 reading of Marx on education and training led to a rather one-sided and narrow view, though I also broadened it out as I went along to include labour-power, skill, apprenticeships, and other education- and training-related topics. From 1992-1996 a more general re-reading brought in themes and issues that I had not included in the earlier narrower focus on education and training and related aspects. These included: value, exchange value, use value, surplus value, labour, labour process, the commodity, labour-time, abstraction, the value of labour-power, and alienation amongst others. Finally, from 1999-2001, a further re-reading of the Grundrisse (Marx, 1858) and the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Marx, 1844), the Results of the Immediate Process of Production (Marx, 1866) and Theories of Surplus Value - Part One (Marx, 1863) focusing on issues to do with method, contradiction, abstraction, alienation, dead and living labour, and needs was undertaken. Finally, works of Marxist theorists, researchers and critics that have been particularly useful for the development of my work have been few, as I consciously decided in 1980 to read Marx ‘straight’ and not filter his ideas through any particular commentators and analysts. However, from the early days of my reading of Marx I found the work of Derek Sayer on Marx’s method to be particularly useful (Sayer, 1979). From the early-1990s, works by Open Marxist writers such as Werner Bonefeld (e.g. Bonefeld, 1992, 1994 and 1995) and John Holloway (e.g. Holloway, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995a-b and 2002) have been especially influential on my thinking. From the mid-1990s I discovered the work of Michael Neary (Neary, 1996; and Neary and Taylor, 1997) and went on to work out ideas with Neary and to write with him (Neary and Rikowski, 2000; and 2002) leading to a number of ideas on time, the ‘human’ and the nature of capital’s social universe. Finally, Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor and Social Domination (Postone, 1996) was for me the most significant book of the twentieth century in terms of developing my work on Marxist educational theory, and I would stress that anyone who wants to get into this area of enquiry and research would do well to read this wonderful book.

In terms of those writing on Marxist educational theory and research, few have had any positive impact on my work. Indeed, my own work is a reaction to what I took to be traditional Marxist educational theory. Having said that, a few writers have been useful, in particular Rachel Sharp (1986), John Freeman-Moir (Freeman-Moir, 1992; Freeman-Moir and Scott, 1991) and especially Paula Allman (Allman, 1999 and 2001) who in my view has written the two best single-authored books on Marxist educational theory we have today. Peter McLaren’s work has been an inspiration, particularly his book on Che Guevara and Paulo Friere (McLaren, 2000) and his work on education and empire (McLaren, 2005). Personal contacts and discussions, sometimes over many years, have also played their part. In particular, discussions with Dave Hill and Mike Cole and the experience of being in the Hillcole Group of Radical Left Educators from 1994 to 2001 also made their mark. Various email discussions with Peter McLaren at the University of California, Los Angeles (since 1997) and with Helen Raduntz from the University of South Australia (since 1998) have also played a significant role. Collaborative publications with Hill, Cole and McLaren also helped to sharpen my ideas (especially Hill, McLaren, Cole and Rikowski, 1999; Cole, Hill, Rikowski and McLaren, 2001; Hill, McLaren, Cole and Rikowski, 2002 [1]; and McLaren and Rikowski, 2001). Discussions with Michael Neary (University of Warwick, Department of Sociology) since 1994 have been particularly exciting on a range of topics including, value, time, the ‘human’, abstract labour and labour-power. Finally, the experience of running the twice-yearly Marxism and Education: Renewing Dialogues (MERD) seminars with Tony Green (University of London, Institute of Education) since October 2002 has yielded many important discussions, both in terms of the content of the seminars but also talks in the bar after the events.

The foregoing has provided a brief account of the empirical, historical and theoretical resources pertinent to the development of my Marxist educational theory. It is also useful, I believe, to give an outline of the development of Marxist educational theory, writing and research over the last 35 years. This places my work within the context of the rise, demise and resurrection of Marxist work in education over this period.

Historical and Theoretical Context

Marxist educational theory, research and writing reached its last peak in the late-1970s and early-1980s, building on the work of Althusser (1971), Bowles and Gintis (1976), Sarup (1978) and Willis (1977). This was the Classical Age of Marxist educational theory, an age when radicals, Left sociologists and economists were looking at what was being written in education by Marxists. Writing on education by Marxists became a serious strand within Marxism for a brief moment.

Yet the bubble burst almost as quickly as it was blown up. With a few honourable exceptions, the rest of the 1980s and the early-1990s witnessed a failure to develop this first wave of Marxist educational theory and research. Instead, Marxists interested in education typically found themselves shoring up the many problems and weaknesses inherent in the first wave work. The problems making for the demise of the Old Marxist educational theory are outlined in Rikowski (1996a and 1997a).

By the mid-1990s Marxist educational theory and research emerged from a long period of withstanding critique, degeneration from within and hyper-defensiveness. Works from Richard Brosio (1994) Kevin Harris (1994) and Michael Neary (1997) heralded a new period of development and experimentation in Marxist educational research and writing. In the last few years, Marxist educational theory and research and radical pedagogy have opened up a second wave of development following the mini-renaissance of the mid-1990s. Works by Paula Allman (1999, 2001), Peter McLaren (2000), Bertell Ollman (2001), Borg, Buttigieg and Mayo (2002) and Hill, McLaren, Cole and Rikowski (2002) have gained international acclaim. Furthermore, many others are pushing out Marxist analysis into an increasing range of policy issues and theoretical concerns, such as lifelong learning, mentoring, learning society, social justice, globalisation, marketisation, and many other areas. Details on developments in the field are provided in Rikowski (2002c). Finally, the second wave has generated renewed interest in theorising and researching issues of class, gender and ‘race’ in education from within Marxism (see Hill and Cole, 2001).

My own work, therefore, contributed towards the resurrection of Marxist educational theory since the mid-1990s whilst also being a reaction to the Old Marxist educational theory and research of both the Classical Age (1976-1982) and the period of demise and crisis (1983-1993). Indeed, through my writing of the mid-1990s (principally Rikowski, 1995, 1996a, and 1997) I decided to completely start from scratch with Marxist educational theory, to adopt a ‘scorched earth’ policy; such were the weaknesses of the Old Marxist educational theory as described in these works.

The rest of this paper is a distillation of my progress to date. It is a logical rather than chronological account or reconstruction. This is in the nature of a distillation, and also makes for a clearer and more coherent story.


Karl Marx’s Social Universe

The concept of ‘social universe’ was most definitively established by Moishe Postone (1996) [2]. However, as Michael Neary (2004) has indicated, the concept of a social universe can be traced back to Karl Marx’s Doctoral Dissertation of 1841 (see Marx, 1841). The concept of a social universe only comes to take on a reality in capitalist society. In capitalism, capital as a social relation and social force [3] invades the whole of social existence, the totality of social life as we know it. It is not just a phenomenon confined to the production, exchange, consumption and financial regions of social existence in capitalist society.

The substance of Karl Marx’s social universe, the social universe of capital, [4] however is not capital itself but value [5]. Value can be viewed as a form of social energy [6] that is created in the capitalist labour process when our labour-power, our capacity to labour, is transformed into actual labour as we participate in the production of commodities. Thus, value is stored in commodities similar to the way in which electrical energy is stored in batteries and can be released through further acts of labour to power a range of social transformations, institutions, productive powers, indeed the whole of society as we know it.

For Marx, therefore, the commodity was the perfect starting point for unfolding the elemental features of capital and its value form of labour (labour as value-creating). This is why Marx began the first volume of his Capital not with capital but with the commodity (see Marx, 1867, p.43). For Marx, there were two great classes of commodities: the general class, and the ‘class of one’, the unique, living commodity: labour-power [7].

The Two Great Classes of Commodities

In Theories of Surplus Value - Part One, Marx makes the crucial distinction between the general class of commodities and those ‘which consist of labour-power itself’ (Marx, 1863, p.161). Marx goes on to draw the distinction more shapely when he asserts that:

“The whole world of “commodities” can be divided into two great parts. First, labour power; second, commodities as distinct from labour power itself” (1863, p.167).

Marx’s great work Capital was primarily concerned with ‘commodities as distinct from labour power itself’, the general class of commodities that incorporated value and could, for Marx, be either material (such as bricks and sugar) or immaterial (such as drama productions or transport services) in nature [8]. Marx did not study labour-power specifically, and typically only brought it in when he was concerned with the determination of value and its magnitude. Thus, there is a need to examine labour-power in significantly more depth than Marx does in his own work.

Labour-Power: Fuel for the Living Fire

“Labour is the form-giving fire; it is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, as their formation by living time” (Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1858, p.361).

In a number of works I have indicated that labour-power in the first instance can most accurately be viewed as a social force that flows throughout human beings. It is exists within our own personhoods [9]. When we labour, we organise this force into particular capabilities that are expressed in our labour. Furthermore, when this occurs in the capitalist labour process through our participation in commodity-producing activities then we generate value. The capitalist labour process has a dual quality: as a process producing material wealth in the form of use-value (use-values as products that have some useful end for us) and a valorisation process (a process of producing value that is stored in commodities). Labour-power is therefore analogous to ‘fuel for the living fire’ (labour) that produces value, the substance of capital’s social universe.

The Significance of Labour-power: Capital’s Weakest Link

The transformation of labour-power into labour in the capitalist labour process creates value. Some of this value is represented in the wages that workers receive for their own social reproduction and that of their families, the labourers of the future. However, after a certain point in the working day, week or relevant period of time, workers create value over-and-above that represented by the wage. This is unpaid labour and this in turn produces surplus value, value that is the first form of existence of capital. The labour that produces surplus value is labour that makes capital possible, along with its expansion.

Out of surplus value come taxation, rent and other forms of deduction. Furthermore, there has to be enough value to start the production process over again. Anything left over from this is represented as profit, and it is this that motivates the owners of capital. The value stored in commodities is realised upon sale of the products.

On this analysis, the whole process of surplus value and profit production can be traced back to labour-power. Workers sell their particular commodity, labour-power, to employers for a duration and receive a wage in return. However, representatives of capital (managers, owners of companies, owners of shares in companies) are concerned with the productivity of labour, and in turn with the quality of labour-power (from a national, sectoral and individual capital perspective). The higher the quality of labour-power then the more value is produced and the sooner the point at which surplus value is produced is reached, other things being equal. The line between socially necessary labour (the labour that produces value represented by the wage) and surplus labour (that produces surplus value) is moved (in the working day, week etc.) to the advantage of the latter.

What this indicates is that the existence, maintenance and expansion of capital’s social universe are dependent upon labour-power, that living, unique commodity that is the property of workers. As this commodity resides within the person of the labourer it is under sway of a potentially hostile will. Workers can decide to expend their precious commodity in the labour process to varying extent. They can decide to withdraw goodwill. They can decide for a time not to utilise their labour-powers at all in the capitalist labour process on an individual basis (e.g. the refusal to work, absenteeism etc.) or on a collective basis (e.g. the strike) for a duration, though the structure of capitalist society, with its capitalist state, forces us to yield up our labour-power in various ways.

Thus the single commodity that has the capacity to yield greater value than that required for its own production and maintenance and whose expenditure is the basis for the generation of value and surplus value and the maintenance of capital’s social universe is a commodity that is internal to and part of the personhood of the labourer. It is this that makes labour-power capital’s weakest link. Workers own the power that generates value, surplus value and hence capital. Thus, they also own the power that can destroy it too as they can decide collectively to produce wealth in a form that does not entail value production.

Labour-Power as Human Capital

Labour-power is a transhistorical category. There must be labour-power in all possible human societies. However, it is the social form that labour-power takes in capitalist society that makes it different from that in either Feudal or Ancient societies. In capitalist society, labour-power takes the form of human capital [10].

In capitalist society, however, capital is a social force that invades the human as we subordinate our labour-powers under its control, ends and purposes. For Marx, individuals develop themselves within the process of production and in capitalist productive processes they develop themselves as forms of capital, human capital. Human capital development is at the foundation of New Labour’s education policy, and when it is referred to in official reports, White and Green Papers, Bills and Acts of Parliament in relation to education it functions as a proxy concept for labour-power in contemporary capitalism [11].

The Great Rift within Our Selves

On the basis of the previous section, it appears that there is a great rift within our personhoods in capitalist society. 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.

Yet we are also constituted as ‘labour’ as well as capital. Our own desires, for free time and relaxation, consumption and what we might call a ‘social life’ are one factor. However, as ‘labour’ we shall also want to enhance our pay and working conditions, which hit hard at the roots of surplus value production and hence the existence and magnitude of capital.

This split within ourselves truly screws us up. It forms the basis of the Marxist analysis of social class. On this account, social class is not just a clash between two social groups with opposing and antagonistic interests. It runs through our personhoods too. ‘Class’ is internal to our constitution as labour and capital. A battle plays itself out within our ‘selves’, our lives, our souls. The forces of labour and capital rage at each other within us, making our lives fundamentally unsettled [12].

A psychology of capital, which is also a real psychology of our ‘selves’ and the predicament we find ourselves to be in, would focus on the ways in which this great rift manifests itself in our lives [13]. There are further splits within capital and the labour that sustains it and hence necessary splits within labour-power itself (which de facto entail contradictions within our personalities to the extent that our personhood is capitalised) that flow from various aspects of labour. These aspects of labour in turn presuppose aspects of labour-power, or labour-power aspects. The following section focuses on these.

Labour-power Aspects

If the previous analysis is correct and labourers become capitalised during the process of labouring then it follows that they must also incorporate capital’s contradictions that are expressed in the first instance as aspects of our labour. Yet for these latter to exist they must be related to labour-power aspects.

Although it is a ‘unified social force, labour-power is nevertheless a highly contradictory phenomenon’ (Rikowski, 2002d, p.187) [14]. Key to this is that:

“The contradictions inherent within labour-power flow from the existence of capital as a mode of being within labour, or labour in capital; what I have called aspects of labour-power (Rikowski, 1990). By ‘aspects’ I do not mean that labour-power is composed of different ‘parts’. Furthermore, to split it up into ‘parts’ or ‘bits’ would reify these as discrete elements of labour-power, destroying its characterisation as a unified social force flowing throughout personhood. Rather, these aspects can best be viewed as of this self-same unified social force: labour-power” (Rikowski, 2002d, p.187, original emphases).

There are three labour-power aspects that are expressed as ‘capital within labour’: the use-value, exchange-value and value aspects of labour (and labour-power) (Rikowski, 2002d, p.188). Then there are three labour-power aspects expressed as ‘labour within capital’: the concrete, subjective and collective aspects of labour-power (Ibid.).

Taking the first three, the value-aspect of labour-power is an expression of the quantitative aspect of labour. It relates to the drive to labour faster with the aim of cutting down socially necessary labour and therefore enhancing the proportion of the working day devoted to surplus value production. The use-value aspect of labour refers to the qualitative moment in production; that useful products whose value can be realised in sale must be produced. From this flows the use-value aspect of labour-power, where workers focus on the quality of the commodities they produce. The third aspect is the exchange-value aspect of labour (and of labour-power). This establishes equality of labours, of labour-powers and the social worth of labourers [15]. The second group of labour-power aspects derive from labour’s existence in capital. First there is the concrete aspect of labour-power. This refers to labour-power tied to the specifics of working to produce particular commodities; taking in the observable differences in the expressions of labour-powers in different forms of labour. Secondly, there is the subjective aspect of labour-power. This is the will-determined aspect of labour-power. As labour-power is never completely subordinated under capital, never completely capitalised, then this aspect is always a concern for representatives of capital: they have to coax, cajole and manipulate or force workers to yield up their precious commodity. Finally, the collective aspect of labour-power refers to the necessity of worker working in co-operation and the maximisation of this co-operation.

Labour-power Attributes and the Recruitment Process

Labour-power attributes are the itemised constituents of labour-power. In Marx’s terms they are the physical and mental capabilities that constitute labour-power [16]. These are assessed by labour recruiters in the recruitment process as they search for the workers with the highest quality labour-powers [17]. Of course, there are many factors here – based on the analysis above – that are relevant to this. For example, given the subjective aspect of labour-power workers must be willing to submit to the labour process in a particular company for the stipulated wage: they must engage their will with the requirements of the specific commodities, organisation of production and so on in specific enterprises.

A further consideration is that as labour recruiters formulate the labour-power aspects most crucial for working in their labour process from their perspective then they are involved in a necessary reification, [18] treating these attributes as ‘bits’ or discrete elements of the workers they are judging in the recruitment process.

In addition, recruitment criteria are not identical to labour-power attributes (Rikowski, 1990). This is because some recruitment criteria do not refer to the potential labourers at all, but to the factors like their distance from the workplace in terms of where they live or other circumstantial elements.

This Strange Commodity

It is this strange commodity, labour-power that schools are charged with socially producing (though not totally, as the process continues post-school). Research indicates that it is not the only commodity that they produce, but it is the one that concerns us here [19]. Hence, labour-power, with its contradictory aspects and attributes is a living commodity that schools are involved in socially producing: “Labour-power: it is this living commodity that schools and training organisations are in the business of socially producing, and it is this process of production that leads us to characterise education and training organisations and institutions today as being decisively capitalist in nature. This social production occurs on the basis of the labour-powers of the producers also being subject to contradictions and tensions flowing from the nature of labour-power” (Rikowski, 2002d, p.193) [20].

This alludes to definite processes of the social production of labour-power. These social processes were very ill-defined and weak in Marx’s day, but since the Second World War and the onset of state secondary education for all in the most developed capitalist nations the productive processes involved have attained a clearer social reality.

The Social Production of Labour-power in Capitalism

“…what he [the labourer] pays out for education is devilishly little, but when he does, his payments are productive, for education produces labour-power” (Marx, 1863, p.210 – my emphasis).

Finally, education and training come decisively into the picture. The social production of labour-power in capitalism refers to those processes and institutions concerned with developing and enhancing the quality of labour-power as human capital in contemporary society.

The social production of labour-power is a process that is highly fragmented between institutions (schools, colleges, universities and training organisations). It includes on-and-off-the-job training. It also includes an ‘automatic’ phase as labourers develop their skills, attitudes and other labour-power attributes on-the-job as they labour (Marx, 1867). Systems of work-based learning attempt to formalise this.

Empirically, the forms that the social production of labour-power takes will vary. Research into these social forms has barely begun [21].

Methods for Researching the Social Production of Labour-Power in Capitalism

There need to be methods devised for understanding the social production of labour-power in capitalism and the various roles of institutions that are involved in these processes. One of the key points requiring understanding is why processes of the social production of labour-power are so fragmented, complex and so chaotic.

Studies of particular sectors would be useful here. In a paper I wrote on this issue, called Methods for Researching the Social Production of Labour Power in Capitalism (Rikowski, 2002a) I attempted to sketch out the elementary-logical form, the complex form and a specific concrete form (from the engineering industry) of the social production of labour-power. This could be the basis of a significant programme of empirical study [22].

In order to construct these forms of the social production of labour-power we need to outline a number of basic forms of education and categories of capital. The next two sections turn to these.

Forms Internal to the Process of Social Production: 1 – Forms of Education

On the basis of the social production of labour-power in capitalism, a number of forms of education can be discerned. First, there is general education which is education intentionally divorced from labour-power attributes required to work within individual capitals. General education is ‘not biased towards the labour-power ‘needs’ of particular capitals, but is aimed at capital-in-general, the generalised ability to work in capitalist labour processes’ (Rikowski, 2002a, p.20 – original emphases).

Practical education involves specialisation in relation to capital through emphasis on the ‘knowledge, skills and other labour-power attributes required to work within a particular fraction … or sector of capital’ (Rikowski, 2002a, p.21). Practical education is ‘applied general education’ (Ibid.).

Training is more biased towards the concrete development and application of labour-power attributes. It can be viewed as ‘the process of bringing a person to a standard such that effective performance in a specific form of labour process is possible’ (Rikowski, 2002a, p.22).

It should be noted that this three-fold distinction moves from the general, abstract level (capital-in-general) towards the concrete and individual level regarding capital. These distinctions could be used for the analysis of curricula as well as processes and institutions involved in labour-power production.

Forms Internal to the Process of Social Production: 2 – Categories of Capital

The social production of labour-power could also be contextualised in terms of categories of capital. The labour-power needs of capital could be analysed and researched in relation to the following categories of capital:

* Capital-in-general

* The National Capital

* Fractions of Capital (Manufacturing, Finance, Services and Landed)

* Sectors of Capital (particular Industries – including welfare state forms)

* Individual capital – particular companies and enterprises

* Functions of Capital – functions that exist in ‘a definable way across categories of capitals’ (Rikowski, 2001a, pp.41-43).

This could be done for both labour-power aspects and labour-power attributes, yielding a research programme incorporating case studies (on particular companies) and surveys on sectors and fractions of capital. Finally research on labour-power needs for capital-in-general could inform regarding the ‘basics’ of capitalist schooling. This research programme would, of course bring out the contradictions within social processes of labour-power production flowing from the contradictions within labour-power itself, but also within antagonistic groups involved in the process (e.g. employers’ and workers’ organisations).


This paper has been largely self-referential. In attempting to distil my work on Marxist educational theory I have focused on its own internal development. Much of necessity has been left out; a process of distillation necessarily does this. There is nothing of my work on what ‘Marx said’ on education and training here, yet I would argue that the theoretical concepts outlined in this paper, which were forged in relation to Marx, have more significance than Marx’s specific pronouncements on education and training in capitalism.

Furthermore, all themes examine here are very much ‘works in progress’. For example, I have refined the analysis on aspects of labour-power considerably since 1990, when I only had four (subjective, collective, use-value and exchange-value aspects – in Rikowski, 1990). I also made the mistake then of attempting to allocate specific labour-power attributes to particular aspects of labour-power (in Rikowski, 1990) based on my own study of engineering apprentice recruitment. Yet by the mid-1990s I had overturned this view and argued that each of the labour-power attributes could be perspectivised through the labour-power aspects (in Rikowski, 1996b-c).

Over the next five years I shall attempt to bring the work distilled here together in a book that traces the various movements from the abstract to concrete (labour-power to labour-power attributes; and labour-power need of capital from capital-in-general to individual capitals, for example). It is to be hoped that the book will be useful for those who wish to research the social production of labour-power in capitalism as well as for education activists and Marxist educational theorists.


[1] This book won an American Educational Studies Association Critics’ Choice Award for 2004.
[2] See Postone (1996, p.143): “By specifying the character of his own social universe, Marx is able to develop an epistemologically consistent critique and finally to move beyond the dilemma of earlier forms of materialism he outlined in the third thesis on Feuerbach” (emphasis added).
[3] On capital as a social force, see Rikowski (2002b, pp.124-129).
[4] For more on the social universe of capital, see: Neary and Rikowski (2002), Rikowski (2000b, 2000c, 2002b, 2002d) and McLaren 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). Furthermore, notes Neary, Moishe Postone’s book Time, Labor and Social Domination (1996) is concerned with showing how the commodity-form is at the centre of and pervades the whole of capital’s social universe. Neary writes that: “Postone’s travels into the deep structure of social space and time are powered by his attachment to the commodity-form which, he argues, provides the framework for the dominant form of social relations in capital and is, therefore, the structuring principle of his ‘social universe’ (2004, p.241).
[6] Recent work in social energetics by Teresa Brennan (2000) and Alan Williams (2003) indicates how the concept of social energy can be used to understand the natures of time, value and labour in contemporary capitalist society. See also the work of Ana Dinerstein (1997) who notes that “As in physics, social energy is permanently being transformed” in capitalist society (p.83).
[7] Marx defined labour-power, the capacity to labour, in the following way: “By labour-power or capacity to labour is to be understood 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” (Marx, 1867, p.164). However, I have argued that personality traits and attitudes should also be included within the definition of labour-power, and have provided justifications for this based on empirical studies (see Rikowski, 1990; and 2000c and 2002a-b and 2002d for more on this point).
[8] For more on the distinction between the ‘two great classes of commodities’ and the significance of the distinction for the development of Marxist theory in general and Marxist educational theory in particular, see Rikowski (2000a, 2000b, and especially 2000c, 2002a and 2002d).
[9] Material on how labour-power is incorporated within our own persons can be found in Rikowski (2002b, pp.118-122; and 2002d, pp.184-187).
[10] The arguments that demonstrate this are complex and difficult. These arguments can be found in Rikowski (2001c, pp.13-15; 2002b, pp.124-129; and 2003, pp.149-152).
[11] See Rikowski (2001b) that illustrates this point in relation to the Green Paper of 2001. See also Rikowski (2004) that indicates how human capital is at the foundation of lifelong learning policy in England, under both New Labour and the preceding Conservative administrations.
[12] My paper, After the Manuscript Broke Off expands on these points (Rikowski, 2001d).
[13] For more on the psychology of capital see Rikowski (2002b and 2003).
[14] The best account of this in my work can be found in Rikowski (2002d, pp.187-193).
[15] “This is the only form of equality recognised, or socially validated, in the social universe of capital. This form of equality has nothing to do with ‘morality’ for capital is ‘without ego’ (Postone, 1996). Furthermore, we are of equal ‘worth’ only if our labour-powers are of equal value. Again, this has nothing to do with ethics” (Rikowski, 2002d, pp.190-191).
[16] I would also include personality traits and attitudes as labour-power attributes, and regarding the justification of this see Rikowski (1990 and 2000c).
[17] As Marx notes, “With the keen eye of an expert … [the capitalist] … has selected the means of production and the kind of labour-power best suited to his particular trade” (1867, p.179).
[18] For more on this, see Rikowski (2002a, pp.16-18).
[19] Other commodities produced by schools are suggested in Rikowski (1995).
[20] That is, the contradictions and tensions flowing from the various labour-power aspects (e.g. between the value- and use-value aspects).
[21] See Rikowski (2000c) for some analysis of both empirical forms of the social production of labour-power in the engineering industry 25 years ago and the elemental and basic forms that can be used to understand the fragmentation of the real forms.
[22] Indeed, it already has been the basis of a research programme into the meaning of work (see Dawson, 2003). Jane Dawson used the second sets of ideas in my paper (Rikowski, 2002a, pp.26-27) to generate a research programme on individual labour-power trajectories using biographic work interviews.


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Dr. Glenn Rikowski
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