Flow of Ideas

Three Types of Apprenticeship, Three Forms of Mastery: Nietzsche, Marx, Self and Capital

A Departmental Paper, School of Education, University of Birmingham, 5th June 1998

Glenn Rikowski

"Mastery. - One has attained to mastery when one neither goes wrong nor hesitates in the performance" Friedrich Nietzsche (1982) [1881], Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, 537, p.212.


The concept of ‘apprenticeship’ requires analysis in terms of its end state: mastery. Apprenticeship viewed as ‘new learning paradigm’ demands that the concept of the fully-developed apprentice – one who gas become a “Master” – be clarified. The apprentice-Master couplet is not of the polar variety, as in the examples given by Hamlyn (1971), such as knowledge-belief and thick-thin (pp.16-19). Polar concepts can only be understood relative to each other (ibid.). They suggest a continuum, where one implies the existence of the other, in the way that “hot” implies “cold”.

This is not the case with apprenticeship-Master. Here the temporal break – where the apprentice at a certain point becomes a Master – occasions an ontological break: apprentices ‘come out of their time’ and become different persons. As Parkin (1978) noted, apprentices learn the process of ‘self-generating skill’, which involves learning how to undertake continuous learning. The Master, by contrast, is (ontologically) a continuous learner where the problems to be solved are generated by engagement with the trade through the application of skill and knowledge with an underlying confidence and attitude (summarised as ‘craft pride’) towards production and the product. The apprentice learns how to become a Master. Hence, there is a need to understand mastery as the terminal point of apprenticeship.

Three types of mastery are articulated in relation to three forms of apprenticeship: classical apprenticeship; modern apprenticeship; and postmodern apprenticeship. These forms of apprenticeship are depicted as ‘real-ideal types’ which are not drawn in an abstract, de-historicised was – as a process of ‘pure’ conceptual analysis – but are grounded within a basic historical account of the development of British apprenticeship from the First World War. Secondly, the whole analysis is driven by perspectives on mastery drawn from Nietzsche and Postone’s (1996) rendering of Marx’s concept of capital. This analysis, allied to the historical outline, illustrates what is at stake in the new (post)modern apprenticeships that have been introduced in Britain in the last few years. (Post)modern apprenticeships are based on perennial apprenticeship; there is no terminal point to apprenticeship. Hence, mastery is never attained. There is a ‘master, but its name is “capital”. In (post)modernised apprenticeships, apprentices learn unto death in reaction to the ‘needs’ of a blind, globalising and dominating social force which is ‘without an ego’ (Postone, 1996) and whose drives are infinite: capital. We learn for, with and through capital in (post)modernised apprenticeship. To the extent this occurs we become capital; we become transhuman as capitalised entities.

This paper unravels the horror in the summary above. It starts with Nietzsche’s thoughts on mastery. This is followed by a brief history of British apprenticeship – from 1920 to the present day – which grounds later analysis and discussion. The section thereafter outlines three real-ideal types of apprenticeship (classical, modern and postmodern), which subsequently involves invoking three parallel perspectives on mastery. Special attention is given to the last (postmodern) version as it raises possibilities for a Marxist of the horror lurking within. The horror is explicated through a discussion on capital and the ‘transhuman’. The Conclusion summarises points which indicate the need for a reorientation of political perspective based on the reconfigured view of capital-labour-person relations outlined in the paper.


Nietzsche’s writings contain many perspectives on mastery. In his contrasts between ‘slave’ and ‘master’ morality in Beyond Good and Evil (1990/1886, section 260) Nietzsche is concerned with a broad analysis of these concepts which function as standards for ascertaining the value of individuals. The task is to show how this project has relevance for a narrower conception of mastery set around craft performance. Nietzsche addresses this utilitarian – and more conventional – sense of the notion of mastery in The Gay Science (1974/1882). For Nietzsche, these two perspectives are both inferior to a third perspective on mastery. This third view is mastery as continuous self-overcoming. Through the work of Richardson (1996) and Scott Johnston (1998), and through Nietzsche himself, a typology of mastery – utilising the three perspectives – is sketched out. It is used to inform the discussion downline.

A useful starting point is Nietzsche’s views on ‘normal health’ and the horizon of the master as prefix to what he says about ‘craft’ and the craftsman. Richardson (1996, p.129-130) provides a sketch of this first, ‘lower’ order of mastery. In his conception, the horizon of the master has clear boundaries (of location, practice or social affiliation) which configure his life. These boundaries function to reproduce him as a definable member of a group within which he was born and/or socialised. This ‘… group holds … mastery because it energies are committed to a simple and well-organized system of practices’ (Richardson, 1996, p.129). The group helps to organise the drives of individual members and creates members in its image. Thus:

“…each master is raised to be a simple and stable structure of drives himself, also willing growth in an activity with which he identifies – his role” (Ibid.).

The horizon of the master is set by role, status and identification with practice. Nietzsche held that such a horizon functioned as a boundary within which individuals could flourish and grow in terms of their designated activity. Mastery is nurtured within a closed social sphere through apprenticeship. When it is attained there is minimal scope for re-definition of practice by individual masters. This is because the master aims to ‘conserve’ a particular practice and way of life. Indeed, reverence for practices built up over many generations is basic to this form of mastery.

Although Richardson (1996) sketches out this type of mastery in relation to politics, he is at pains to stress that it has more general application within Nietzsche’s work. This can be seen when we turn to what Nietzsche has to say on mastery in its craft form. In The Gay Science Nietzsche (1974/1882, section 366, pp.322-323) explores the relationship between mastery and craftsmanship. He notes that ‘every craft makes crooked’ (Ibid.). Using ‘craft’ in a broad sense to mean specialisation in employment, Nietzsche argues that:

“Every craft, even if it should have a golden floor, has a leaden ceiling over it that presses and presses down upon the soul until that becomes queer and crooked. Nothing can be done about that. Let nobody suppose that one could possibly avoid such crippling by some artifice of education. On this earth one pays dearly for every kind of mastery … For having a speciality one pays by being a victim of this speciality” (Nietzsche, 1974/1882, pp.322-323).

This perspective on mastery is castigated by Nietzsche for stunting the life force of individuals, for not engendering an expansive creativity and for restricting individual growth and development. For these ends, argues Nietzsche, individuals need to smash through narrow horizons set by occupation, trade or tradition in search of the ‘great health’. They need to overcome themselves and increase their capacity for self-development. In effect, they need to become masters of a very different kind. The case of the craftsman illustrates the poverty, life-denying and baseness of the ‘normal’ type of mastery.

Nietzcshe expends considerable energy – spread throughout his works – on exploring the conditions necessary for the rise of a master type who breaks the bonds of society. He examines history (especially ancient Greece), individuals (such as Goethe and Napoleon) and contemporary societies and culture in an attempt to gain insight into the becoming, the formation of such masters. At the heart of this form of mastery is self-mastery, but self-mastery which is self-regarding and not subsumed under a conserving imperative which seeks to eternalise a particular social group, practice or way of life. Nietzsche acknowledges that education or training could be one of the forces making for self-overcoming, yet education and training are ‘firmly rooted in the social and cultural’ and:

“To self-overcome requires the very overcoming of education, as far as education is itself a product and a minion of the dominant society and culture” (Scott Johnston, 1998, p.73).

This expanded form of mastery has no horizon, no boundaries – unto death. It is a process and trajectory. Nietzsche acknowledged that it involved playing a ‘dangerous game’ as it entailed continual dissolution, re-definition and recomposition of self. It also involved a ‘war against society’ – including education – as the self-overcoming individual ‘has the locus of existence entrenched firmly within’ (Scott Johnston, 1998, p.78). Thus, Nietzsche’s injunction (in Ecce Homo, 1979/1888) to ‘become what one is’ involves placing ‘a will to create and live within one’s own truths; as the centre of one’s life-activity and process (Scott Johnston, 1998, p.78). In turn, this involves a form of mastery with a:

“… new system of valuation provided by and for this individual [which] takes its point of reference from the individual, and not from the outward society, church, state, nation, or culture” (Ibid.).


“Static being gives way to a dynamic becoming. Every moment of every day of every year is spent in self-overcoming …” (Ibid.).

It is a lifelong vocation. The parallel with lifelong learning is startling, and we return to this in due course.

APPRENTICESHIP: 1920-1980, Interregnum and Postmodern

This section focuses on aspects of the historical debate in Britain surrounding the value of apprenticeship. It provides an historical backdrop to the drawing of the three models of apprenticeship: the classical, modern and postmodern. The first two sub-sections of this historical account are based on a reading of the journals of the Institute of Personnel Management and the Industrial Society from the First World War to 1980.

Crises within Classical Apprenticeship

A reading of these journals yields the view that employers and educationalists perennially believed the apprenticeship system to be in crisis; to be on the verge of withering away due to its being outmoded, ‘feudal’ or simply irrelevant to the training of skilled workers in modern industry. However, prophesies of doom regarding apprenticeship continued to flounder on its resilience. On closer examination, the arguments put forward concerning the ebbing away of apprenticeships had a specific location: they were based on the view that new technology and mass production, associated with de-skilling, were eroding the need for a lengthy and elaborate system of training. As these trends progressed, it was argued, apprenticeships would die out [1].

Schofield (1923) argued that attempts to revivify the apprenticeship system were: ‘… threatened at every point under the modern mass production system’ (p.194). Evidence beyond the management journals surveyed suggests that apprenticeship was on the wane between the wars (see Croucher, 1982; Penn, 1982). Penn (1982) attributed this not to some inexorable de-skilling tendency, but to the changing balance of industrial power in favour of capital following heavy defeats for organised labour in the 1920, and the relatively high proportion of trade union members who were unemployed once the post-First World War boom ended inn 1921. Croucher (1982) points to the continued dilution of labour after the First World War and the tendency to split tasks of skilled fitters and turners ‘… down into their constituent operations’ (p.9). These simpler tasks were then given to women and young ‘trainees’. The latter were typically’ shown the door’ when they were old enough to demand the adult rate. Unlike apprentices, whose indentures placed an obligation on the employer to give a general training, trainees need only be taught a narrow range of operations (Ibid.). In the conditions between the wars:

“… it was inevitable that the importance of apprenticeship as a route of entry to the skilled trades declined in importance” (Croucher, 1982, p.9).

Commentators in the two journals preferred technological determinism as a basis for explaining the degeneration of apprenticeships rather than more human-centred explanations resulting from changes in power relations between capital and labour.

For Butler (1933), the very ‘spiritual essence’ of British craftsmanship was being undermined by mechanisation. The high ideals of British craftsmanship were being eroded by the onward march of machine production. Butler, a college Principal, believed that is was the duty of the college to attempt to preserve this spiritual essence, which he saw as the status of a ‘responsible citizen’ (p.xi) in the face of de-skilling. He also believed that British craftsmanship would fall before the onslaught of modern machine production, for:

“We may be able to preserve the spiritual essence behind the work of the craftsman, but the very nature of mechanical operations today leaves little room for craftsmanship or for pride in one’s completed work. Neither manual dexterity nor technical expertise are the same thing as Craftsmanship” (Ibid.).

Setting aside consistency, Butler nevertheless believed that the best features of craftsmanship could be maintained.

Hazell (1934) argued that:

“The practical factory training received during apprenticeship is progressive and invaluable, but the presence of modern day business and the rush of high speed production often make it very difficult for an employer … to give his apprentices in the workshops as much tuition as they need” (p.34).

Thus, not only did modern day business mean that apprenticeship was irrelevant within the context of a de-skilled labour process, but the rush of high speed production made it increasingly impossible for craftsmen to show apprentices how things were done whilst keeping to production schedules. Therefore, Hazell advocated that training be carried out in technical classes instead.

Wilkinson (1931) believed that the substitution of technical and vocational classes for ‘real work’ was itself a further threat to the apprenticeship system. The classical apprenticeship, with time-serving and training by the ‘sitting next to Nellie’ method could be replaced by systematic training linked to technical education. But in the conditions of modern business why was apprenticeship necessary at all, argued Wilkinson? A number of commentators from the 1920s-1970s have supplied a range of answers to this question.

Apprenticeship: Relic or Aid for Diminishing Alienation?

A number of writers castigated the apprenticeship system as an ‘obsolete method of training’, a ‘survival of the feudal period’, a ‘form of cheap labour’ and as an ‘inflexible form of training’ [2]. Bramham (1974) argued that:

“… a manpower policy should not be based on them [apprenticeships] it we are to make the best use of the people we employ” (p.32).

This was because there was a five-six year gap between recruitment and effective employment. Therefore, continued training was needed, devoid of the ‘… custom and tradition of apprenticeships’ (Ibid., pp.32-33). The modular system of training, developed after the 1964 Industrila Training Act, could be used to retrain adults, argued Bramham. Writers within the general literature on apprenticeships copiously noted their defects (see Twyman, 1944; Liepmann, 1960; and Williams, 1963). Others looked upon the onward march of machine production as having quite the opposite implications for apprenticeship. In these conditions, it was argued, apprenticeship was more necessary than ever. Butler (1933) argued that:

“Real industrial progress is not possible unless emphasis is placed on the individual and not the machine” (p.xvi).

Apprenticeship provided this emphasis, restoring a sense of identity, responsibility and self-respect to the young worker. According to Mitchell (1970), apprenticeship conferred a certain status upon the individual, provided long-term financial gain and a base of solid instruction.

The most spirited defence of the apprenticeship system in the journals surveyed was given by Parkin (1978). Parken blamed ‘… the ‘alienation’ that is spreading over the industrial face of society’ (p.23) on the failure of training systems, skill analysis and job enrichment schemes to provide the intrinsic interest in work. These features of modern industrial, and the mechanistic de-skilled culture they were related to, entailed clinicalised learning of routine skills which destroyed the essential features of craft skill and nurtured feelings of alienation amongst workers, noted Parkin.

Parkin listed six features of the classical apprenticeship and the traditional craftsman – the ‘Master of Destiny’ – which the reconstituted classical apprenticeship should embrace. These features included:

1. The autonomy of the traditional craftsman, involving a strong identification with the product, the ability to design, manufacture, repair and maintain the product, adaptability, and to be a ‘master of the whole job’;
2. The proper rate for the job demanded by Guilds (within market constraints);
3. Little or no supervision of the craftsman;
4. A self-regulating system; with controlled entry, controlled numbers and standards with indentures which were legally binding;
5. The traditional craftsman was highly regarded in the community;
6. The craftsman was a self-managing learner, for ‘the apprentice absorbed the secret (mystique) of self-generating skill’ (p.24).

The reconstitution of the craft system and the classical apprenticeship was the real solution to ‘modern alienation’, argued Parkin. To re-design this system, noted Parkein, management had to identify key areas of craft skill in jobs not currently recognised as crafts, ensure that all young people became competent in one of these core areas and then accept that ongoing learning was going to be a reality.

The Industrial Training Act of 1964 encouraged the movement away from classical to modern apprenticeships. It was the spur to change, and it is the short era of ‘modern’ or ‘new’ apprenticeships, 1964-1980, than we now turn.

The Industrial Training Act and Modern Apprenticeships

From the 1930s onwards, a number of contributors to the journals contrasted the old, traditional or classical apprenticeship with the new or ‘modern’ apprenticeship, with the corollary that the former would die out and the latter would survive modern machine production. It was generally acknowledged by most authors who made interventions in the apprenticeship debate that the shift from old-classical to new-modern apprenticeships started in the 1930s. Butler (1933) was the first to use the term ‘new apprenticeship’. The shift to new-modern apprenticeships was uneven. In some large ‘enlightened’ firms the change had taken place before the Second World War. The 1964 Industrial Training Act was designed to speed up the transition.

The Act made for the establishment of industry-based industrial training boards (ITBs), which were charged with ensuring an adequate supply of training workers, improving the quality and efficiency of industrial training and sharing the costs of training across industry (Training Research Group, 1981). On the second point, ITBs designed module-based training systems which trained to industry standards. Apprentices typically undertook training through completion of a main trade-based module but employers could also tack on other modules to give breadth of training and thus increase worker flexibility. By 1969 there were 27 statutory ITBs. Baords had the power to raise levies (as a percentage of payroll) from firms within their orbit, and then to re-distribute funds to companies in the form of training grants to those who provided adequate and approved training. Companies were not obliged to carry out any training, but if they took this route then they received no training grant whilst being unable to escape the levy. In 1969, total levies raised was £195 million (Perry, 1976).

Although the 1964 Act was designed to get away from ‘time-serving’ and move towards a standards-based, modularised system, in practice time-serving and age of entry restrictions remained largely intact. This was partly a result of the tripartite nature of ITBs. Boards were administered by an equal number of employer and employee members and a smaller number of educationalists. This made it difficult for employers to institute ‘radical’ changes to apprenticeship. Furthermore, the ITBs were subject to a Central Training Council (CTC) – charged with ensuring overall coherence of training policy – which was staffed by the Ministry of Labour. Employers were hostile to this arrangement (Perry, 1976).

As Smyth (1964) noted, those who persisted with old apprenticeships would be financially penalised by being refused training grants, yet would still pay a levy of a percentage of the firm’s payroll for training, in effect transferring money to those who were training to new-modern apprenticeship standards. He expected old-classical apprenticeships to wither away.

However, almost as soon as the new, modernised apprenticeships were up and running, the Conservative Government of 1970-74 watered down the measure of the 1964 Act. The Heath Government brought in the Employment and Training Act 1973, which replaced the levy-grant system with a levy-grant-exemption system. Boards could exempt small firms from levy where there was evidence that they could meet their own training needs. Secondly, ITBs were no longer required to raise a levy but ‘were merely allowed to’ (Training Research Group, 1981, p.7) – though the large ITBs decided to maintain the levy. The 1973 Act also established the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) to supercede the CTC. The Labour Governments of 1974-79 stabilised the system (whilst failing to repeal the Tory exemption rules), and the late-1970s saw the high point of ‘modern’ apprenticeship with some ITBs (especially the Engineering and Construction ITBs) doing substantial development work on skill training and assessment systems.

Interregnum and Postmodern Apprenticeships

When the Conservative Government came to power in 1979 it set about dismantling the 1964 Act and the ITBs – although it took nearly ten years to complete the exercise. Furthermore, the modern apprenticeship system flowing from the 1964 Act was seen as not being employer-friendly enough. The Tories disliked its tripartite basis (Gospel, 1995). Attitudes towards apprenticeship during this period were conditioned by the general determination to eradicate organised labour from all power centres of British society.

Thus, the Department of Employment (1981) and the Manpower Services Commission (MCS, 1981) argued that the apprenticeship system was inadequate to meet current and future training needs. The Department of Employment (1981, p.3) set a target date of 1985 for the replacement of apprenticeships by training to recognised skill standards. Short (1986) argued that the Youth Training Scheme (YTS – set up in 1982) was a direct attempt to destroy the apprenticeship system. Apart from eradicating the influence of trade unions in training policy formation, the other concern of the Conservative Government was to lower youth wages – especially apprentice wages, which were deemed to be to high in relation to adult pay rates. The YTS functioned to depress apprentice wages as apprentice recruits increasingly found themselves put on the meagre YTS training allowances for the first year of training (and then second year from 1986). The loss of manufacturing jobs in the recession of the early 1980s sent apprentice numbers down in absolute terms (107,400 in 1978, to 34,500 in 1990 – Gospel, 1995, p.37), but manufacturing apprentice numbers fell also relative to total manufacturing employees (2.2% in 1978, to 1.1% in 1990, Ibid.). There was increasing concern over the erosion of Britain’s craft and technician skills base.

By the early 1990s – after introducing a range of trade union ‘reforms’, de-regulating the youth labour market and abolishing trade union influence in training and economic policy-making – the Major Conservative Government set about re-designing apprenticeship based on low youth wage expectations and the dominance of employer interests. The Modern Apprenticeship programme was announced in the 1993 Budget, with £1.25 billion funding for the first three years (Fuller, 1996, p.229). The key features of the Modern Apprenticeship, for the analysis being pursued here, are twofold. First, they were not such a radical break from the past after all. As Fuller (1996) notes, although based on gaining National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) Level 3 qualifications, they were viewed by the Department of Education and Employment as being based on the ‘best’ of ‘traditional’ apprenticeships, incorporating the idea of quality training (work-based as well as off-the-job) which would be conducted over a period of time with ‘dedicated employers’ (pp.232-233). In some respects they were not unlike post-1964 modern or even classical apprenticeships. Secondly, but most importantly, they were viewed as being linked to lifelong learning. Modern Apprentices were on a ‘learning escalator’ Fennell, 1994 – in Fuller, 1996, p.233) on a lifelong learning trajectory. Due to increased competitiveness resulting from a globalising world economy the imperative for lifelong learning beyond initial apprentice training was powered by a number of considerations:

1. The end of a ‘job for life’ culture and the need for periods of learning throughout working life;
2. Capital’s increasing drive for worker flexibility to cope with increasingly rapid changes in demand and product design;
3. The perceived need for increased levels of skill and competence for effective competition with national and international rivals.

An example of how Modern Apprenticeships are linked to continuous improvement, continuous and lifelong learning is given by the example of the Rover Group (Berkeley, 1994). Rover have mapped out routes from Modern Apprenticeship to degrees and beyond.

Although Modern Apprenticeships clearly have links with the past, through their attachment to lifelong learning – and being an element within an emerging policy framework with lifelong learning at its core – they can best be described as Postmodern apprenticeship. They imply a different approach to both apprenticeship and mastery. These points are pursued in the following section.


Drawing upon Parkin (1978), Richards (1988) and the historical analysis of the previous section, it is possible to distil the notions of classical and modern apprenticeships, and to bring out basic contrasts. Clasical and modern forms of apprenticeship can be characterised as follows:

Old-Classical Apprenticeships:

1. Time serving;
2. Training through ‘sitting by Nellie’ (observation of the master) and learning by doing (participation in production);
3. Evening classes (not compulsory);
4. Emphasis on indentures – a document signed by parents, apprentices and employers – which laid out the duties and rights of the three parties;
5. Methods of entry through trade unions or informal links (sons of employees);
6. Specialised training in a single trade;
7. Inculcation of ‘craft pride’ and ‘craft mysteries’.

New-Modern Apprenticeships

1. Training to standards of craftsmanship (through modular system);
2. Supervised off-the-job training;
3. Compulsory day release for college study;
4. Contract of employment;
5. Emphasis on attainment of formal qualifications (e.g. City & Guilds);
6. ‘Scientific’ entry: tests, structured interviews, application forms an stipulated qualifications;
7. Flexibility: trade specialism, but some training in other trades;
8. Results oriented and importance of quality.

The features outlined above do not describe the actual state within the apprenticeship system for all instances between two points in time. They can be most usefully viewed as real-ideal types - as they are based on historical analysis and not de-historicised concepts – which illustrate the development of apprenticeships over the 1920-1980 period.

The third type of apprenticeship is based on what has been known as Modern Apprenticeship, but which seems more like a post-modernised apprenticeship. Postmodern apprenticeships can be described as follows:

Postmodern Apprenticeships:

1. Training to standards of NVQ Level 3;
2. Contract of employment;
3. ‘Scientific’ entry: structured interviews, application forms … etc.;
4. Flexibility 1 – expanded form (e.g. mixing General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQ) with NVQ, customising NVQs for firms immediate or medium-term needs);
5. Flexibility 2 – increasing importance of core, key or transferable skills for: internal flexibility in-company; transferability within and between companies and industrial sectors; for retraining (in case of unemployment); and for progression (including higher education);
6. Set within a lifelong learning context and trajectory (as in Berkeley, 1994).

For postmodern apprenticeships, it is the last three factors that are particularly important. This becomes clear in the following discussion.

First, there is a certain continuity between the three forms of apprenticeship. They are all about self-generating skill, apprenticeship as ‘learning how to learn’ and the application of lessons learnt in production. Fuller (1997) shows how this applies specifically to (Post)Modern Apprenticeships.

Secondly, although they all have the drive towards ‘self-generating skill’ in common, the first two types are separated from Postmodern Apprenticeships in one key respect. They both assume that a point is reached when apprentices attain the ability for self-development in relation to trades. For Postmodern Apprenticeships, the model suggests that learners are always going to be subject to the vagaries of rapid technological and labour market changes. Capacity for self-generating skill will be continually tested and developed to meet new labour process and labour market challenges. This relates to a third point about horizons.

In classical apprenticeship, the modus operandi for apprentices is to ‘learn how to learn’ within a single trade. This is self-generating skill within a narrow horizon – and because of it narrowness Marx viewed classical apprenticeship as ‘craft idiocy’ (1977/1867). In modern apprenticeship, the horizon is extended – for flexibility – to two or three trades, but is still within a principal form of self-generating skill as practice. It is in postmodernised apprenticeship that the horizon changes dramatically – to the infinite. The horizon is always just distant. It shifts with rapid technological change, globalising labour and commodity markets and the always present possibility – as impending necessity – for labour power transferability, extension, progression or transformation. The horizon of the postmodern apprentice dissolves into infinity; there are no defined boundaries, no absolute limits to the possible demands of capital as exerted through the world-and-beyond market. This implies both lifelong learning and lifelong apprenticeship. ‘All that is solid melts into air’ (Marx and Engels. 1973/1848, p.83) and the form of self-generating skill as current practice is always provisional. As we shall see, this view has significant consequences for mastery.

A final observation is that there appears to be a retrospective evolutionary, or at least developmental, force at work in the movement between the three forms of apprenticeship. Apprenticeship, as represented in the shift between the three modes, seems to become increasingly subjugated to a deepening of the capital relation. The historical account offered illustrates this. Classical apprenticeships gave way to modern ones as relative surplus value production – through mechanisation pf production – increasingly dominated the process of value creating. This was a long drawn-out process, hastened by the Industrial Training Act of 1964. But modern apprenticeship was deemed to be insufficient as an adequate form of apprenticeship for globalising capital, by leading employers and by the Tory Government. Postmodern apprenticeships signify a world dominated by capital in a deeper sense; they herald an opening up of skilled labour power more fully to the colonisation of capital within personhood. With this, we now turn to explore mastery.


It is now possible to appraise the three forms of apprenticeship sketched out previously by returning to a consideration of mastery through Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, the first two types of apprenticeship – classical and modern – would have had special significance. They were basically preparation for a narrow ‘trade mastery’. As I argued in an earlier paper (Rikowski, 1997), Nietzsche was concerned with the “breeding” and maintenance of a cultural elite, whilst allotting the masses or ‘heard’ – with their ‘slave morality’ – a life of disciplined toil as an element of the material foundation upon which the elite could thrive and develop as self-overcoming ‘artist-warriors’. Thus, although Nietzsche would have viewed the first two types of apprenticeship as preparation for forms of mastery which were pathetic, stunted deformations of character, he would nevertheless have recognised their utility. The moral outlooks involved in the forms of mastery arising from the first two types of apprenticeship – with their conservatism and loyalty to trade practices – are based essentially on the ‘morality of utility’ (Nietzsche, 1990/1886, p.197). Nietzsche had contempt for this form of mastery precisely because it was bounded and relatively fixed within a narrow sphere of activity. The individuals are ‘self-developers’ and ‘overcomers’ within a very limited horizon. They rrevere limits. They are enmeshed in a form of mastery not worth having, but which – through the productive activity they engender – can provide a foundation for culturally richer and more vibrant individuals who become masters in a fuller sense.

What is clear about the forms of mastery arising from the first two types of apprenticeship is that they are attainable. Masters are socially recognised as such when they ‘come out of their time’. The temporal break is established. This is not the case with postmodern apprenticeships.

For postmodern apprenticeships, the formal end of the apprenticeship does not signify mastery for a number of reasons. First, mastery is not built into the process, but flexibility and adaptability are the prime movers. Secondly, and following upon this, it is assumed that the trained skilled worker will skip around the labour market and between labour processes with a lightness of touch and the capacity to learn in a range of situations. Hence: the stress on core or key skills, progression and lifelong learning. Mastery, however, is denied. Despite the fact that all three forms of apprenticeship incorporate self-generating skill and the associated knack of ‘learning how to learn’, within postmodern apprenticeships there is no end point to learning how to do this. Postmodern apprenticeship incorporates lifelong learning but lifelong learning is incompatible with mastery. These points require development.

Postmodern apprenticeship necessarily incorporates lifelong learning: it is an aspect of the postmodernisation of apprenticeship. It establishes learning above the status attached to specific occupations, and sets in motion the ceaseless learning process unto death. Furthermore, in contemporary Britain all education and training policy is bathed in the drive to establish a lifelong learning culture, as the recent Green Paper testifies (DfEE, 1998). Thirdly, leading companies, such as Rover Group (see Berkeley, 1994), specifically place (Post)Modern Apprenticeships within a lifelong learning context and trajectory. Now, mastery implies control over learning – including the decision not to learn further if accumulated learning allows completion of goals as decided by the learner. With mastery, the emphasis is on the practical application of ‘lessons learnt’ to goals designated by the master. This may involve ceasing to learn new material or skills in order to complete tasks within limited time frames, or, in relation to some lessons already learnt; to ‘forget what is known’ (Nietzsche, 1982/1881) in order to act instinctively as master of a creative process. Both processes may result in the denial of lifelong learning. Furthermore, lifelong learning appears as a postmodern form of ‘learning for its own sake’. This passes the drive to the process rather than to the learner and makes a mockery of control, destiny, desire – and mastery. The outcome of all this is that postmodern apprenticeship incorporated within lifelong learning, implies lifelong apprenticeship. It therefore precludes mastery.

For Nietzsche, postmodern apprenticeship must be preferable to the two previous types as it configures a richer, fuller type of individual – even though such individuals fall short of the ‘great health’ and the drive of mature mastery. Charitably, one could argue that postmodern apprenticeships are more likely to open up the individual to a fuller form of life and provide a firmer basis for any real self-overcoming. However, the movement towards postmodernised apprenticeship also represents a deepening of the capital relation; postmodernised apprenticeships are particularly concerned with responding to various demands of capital (as is education and training generally as purposed in recent Government policy statements and official reports). Thus, a Nietzschean perspective on postmodern apprenticeships points to the hopelessness of this form of apprenticeship for self-overcoming. Self-overcoming Nietzschean-style involves struggling against educational institutions and base utility, and entails the denial of lifelong learning as the process of lifelong certification and the end of mature mastery. Even apprentice trainers are simple lifelong learners.

Postmodern apprenticeship is an aspect of lifelong learning. But as lifelong learners within capitalism we only become lifelong apprentices. Postmodern apprenticeship is hence a springboard to lifelong apprenticeship and a denial of mastery. This does not mean there is no Master within postmodern apprenticeship.


In the Grundrisse (1973/1858), Marx’s descriptions of the ‘universal individual’ sometimes sound eerily like the more eulogistic and fanatical characterisations of the ‘lifelong learner’ and lifelong learning in contemporary education policy statements and reports. The worker as ‘universal individual’ has the ability to undertake a wide range of work roles and has ‘general industriousness’ (Marx, 1973/1858, p.325). To the extent that they exhibit these characteristics then individuals constitute a ‘new species’ (Ibid.). Marx emphasises that universal individuals are both the outcome of capitalist development and point towards a different, multi-faceted form of transhuman development through the struggle for communism. Capitalism, argues Marx, provides the substratum for the development of the new species. This is based on the fact that, objectively, capitalists (as personifications of capital) require a flexible and adaptable workforce able to quickly take up a wide range of employments as and when required in response to changing labour process and product demands. The drive to create universal individuals – or lifelong learners – is an inherent and infinite drive (as are all of capital’s drives), though bounded by the material manifestations of other drives (counteracting, sometimes contradictory) flowing from capital, and by the shifting (relative) barriers of time and space.

Universal individuals from the ‘standpoint of capital’ represent a form of ‘universal prostitution’, as their powers are utilised by capital for its reproduction and expansion. Lifelong learners are experiments in the realisation of universal individuals. Postmodern apprentices herald their possibility. Insofar as lifelong learners as postmodern apprentices have real existence then they simultaneously point towards a deepening of the capitalisation of humanity which entails a progressive transhumanism (the ‘human’ as a form of capital – human capital), and towards a future human sociality which actively dissolves capital. This is because, for Marx, universal individuals can only develop to a point limited by the social relations flowing from the domination of capital (1973/1858, pp.241-242). The further development of these individuals rests upon the systematic suspension of barriers integral to capital, leading to the dissolution of capital and abolition of its rule over the lives of individuals. Within the rule of capital, both lifelong learners and postmodern apprentices (two aspects of the same form of personhood) are harbingers of the death of the capitalisation of humanity and the humanisation of capital. They point towards transhuman life forms – ‘new species’ (Marx) – which are at first horrific as humans capitalised and capital humanised, and secondly a force for liberation as new transhuman life forms unburdened by the demon force of capital, and open to extended possibilities for collective, democratic and self-generated forms of transhumanity come into existence.

As capitalised transhuman life forms we are dominated by capital. Capital is the Master of altered (trans-) human souls. This has been the case for some time – certainly throughout the twentieth century in the most advanced capitalist countries, but more likely it has been incipient from the birth of capitalism. Lifelong learning and postmodern apprenticeship are both signs and forces of a deepening of this process. They are signs of deep – deepening – possession. Classical and modern apprenticeships are indicators of less developed forms of transhuman capitalisation; which is why representatives of capital came to loath them as limited models of capitalised transhuman existence.

The problem with this is that it is difficult to explain how humans evolve as altered forms of humanity – become transhuman life forms – through the development of capital. The evolution of apprenticeship: classical-modern-postmodern – mirrors this process but does not explain it. So, how does capital become human and humans become forms of capital? How does capital become Master of the transhuman soul?

Only a brief outline can be given here. First, it is necessary to view capital as a totality, as a globalising and beyond-global social force. There is no human ‘beyond’, and capital is a blind, domination extra-human, alien force that is created by humanity – the expenditure of human labour power as real abstraction. The real abstraction – abstract labour – arises from the fact that capital appears first in the form of value, its value-form as surplus value (Marx, 1977/1867; Neary, 1998) materialised as socially average labour power producing an excess of value over-and above that represented by wages. Thirdly – and Marx makes light of this – in the actual labour process, which is also a valorisation process, humans develop their abilities as forms of labour power. They develop their personhoods as they create an alien social force – capital – which then comes to dominate them (Marx, 1992/1844; Postone, 1996). In labouring within the capitalist labour process labourers subsume their wills under capital (frustrating immediate desire and life-activity). They produce the elementary forms of capital as value-to-surplus-value incorporated within the commodity-form of capital. In the process, they develop their ‘selves’ in, through and in the form of capital (Marx, 1973/1857, p.90), yet also against themselves as capital.

But there is more to it than this. There is also a process of the social production of labour power (schooling, training, workplace- and work-based learning etc.) which is premised on the production of future capitalised souls in labour process space. The social production of labour power in capitalism projects humans as capitalised entities. It incorporates the drive to produce ‘work ready’ beings as capital-creating life-forms at minimum cost. We then sell our labour power as a force to be capitalised further within the labour process.

There is more. We consume capital in its commodity form (food, housing, household goods and other paraphernalia of contemporary existence). We flow through capitalised transport. We are dependent on the state-form of capital (in innumerable ways). Our quality of life is dependent on capital in its money-form (market dependency). Our death is capitalised (as funeral).

In all these ways, and in all these forms, we become and are capital. Capital is Master of human souls, and hence we are transhuman – and have been wherever, and since, the capitalisation of humanity has existed.

Because even in capitalised transhumanism life-forms have consciousness, the domination of capital within personhood and within transhuman collectivities is always in question. We have the capacity to find the weaknesses in the Master within our souls and the known capitalised transhuman universe.


What this analysis shows is that Nietzsche’s third form of mastery is impossible. There is no ‘outside’, no hiding place for self-overcoming beyond capital this side of madness (as Nietzsche tragically discovered), dreamy idealism, or death. Mastery cannot be established within or ‘outside’ of capital’s social universe. Pipedream. Rather, capital has to be destroyed before mastery (in Nietzschean mode) becomes a possibility. Capital engenders destruction from within by transhuman capitalised life-forms as universalising individuals – expansive lifelong learners who know the score.

But we require a politics, forms of collective action, subversiveness and a new conception of the class struggle to banish the Master from our souls. Capital and the class struggle are not just ‘out there’, but are a force within our personhood as labour power constituted through and as capital. Labour power, as an abominable commodity, as real abstraction [3] – which reflects the reduction of personhood to a form of capital – is the foundation of capital and hence of capitalism. Thus, although capital has the tendency to reduce persons to labour power, labour power is under the sway of individual and collective acts of willing and desire. Capital has this big weakness, and it is our big hope.


[1] See: Harden (1925); and Bramham (1974).
[2] See: Lee (1981); Harding (1981); and More (1982).
[3] Derek Sayer (1979 and 1987) indicates that such abstractions are not ‘mental generalisations’, and neither are they transhistorical categories (1979, p.24). They are historical categories which seek to grasp processes actually taking place within specific conditions. Sayer (1979) gives the example of abstract labour, where this ‘real abstraction’ expresses the reduction of labour to a ‘specific social form of labour which posits exchange value’ (Marx, in Sayer, 1979, p.24). Abstract labour is labour ‘conceived merely as the quantitative expenditure of human labour-power, irrespective of the particular useful of concrete form in which this expenditure takes place’ (Sayer, 1987, p.129). Labour power is a real abstraction as it posits and points towards the reduction of humanity and personhood to a commodity form which acts as individual and social force making for the formation of value, surplus-value and capital. Within this process it is simultaneously human activity, human force, social energy and intellect made abstract – equalised, homogenised as average labour power, which is the substance of value – through a form of practice. Labour power is, then, an instance of double abstraction. These examples indicate that real abstractions posit historically specific forms of human practice ‘which really take place’ (Ibid.). Or, human practice itself is made abstract through alienating social practices. Finally, real abstractions can only be fully grasped, and their real existence understood, when they are viewed as being internally related to each other. Thus, labour power within capitalism only becomes a real abstraction in light of its relation to value-creation and its existence as a commodity within capitalist society.


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