Flow of Ideas

Why Employers Can’t Ever Get What They Want. In fact, they can’t even get what they need

A paper presented at the School of PCET Staff/Student Seminar, University of Greenwich, Queen Anne’s Palace, 30 Park Row, Greenwich, London, on 27th March 2000

Glenn Rikowski Faculty of Education, University of Central England, Birmingham, UK

“You can’t always get what you want
Oh no, you can’t always get what you want.”
(The Rolling Stones)

“… labor power always exceeds its constitution as commodity and stubbornly resists being reduced to this meagre status. … Capitalism is thus forced to enter into a constant struggle to secure its own conditions of existence” (Christopher Pavsek, 1996, p.147& p.157).

“By revelling in the paradoxes, contradiction, and tensions that define the present. “We live today inside a continuous collision of opposites” …” (from Watts Whacker, Jim Taylor and Howard Means, The Visionary’s Handbook, in: S. Kirsner, ‘How to Find Your Future’, Fast Company, #32, March 2000, p.82).

“… the antagonism of the passions; two, three, a multiplicity of “souls in one breast”: very unhealthy, inner ruin, disintegration, betraying and increasing and inner conflict and anarchism – unless one passion at last becomes master” (F. Nietzsche, 1888, The Will to Power, 1968, 778).

Introduction: Dissatisfied Employers Know Not What They Want [1]

Since the collapse of the traditional [2] youth labour market in Britain in the mid-1970s, schools have been continually castigated by employers and representatives of industrial organisations for failing to meet the 'needs of industry'. Young people themselves have also been blamed by employers for not having the required qualities (Frith, 1980). Employers’ complaints about the quality of school leavers in the 1970s were wide-ranging. They were ‘appalled’ at the quality of school-leavers' technical skills, their basic numeracy and literacy, their work attitudes, social skills and appearance (Clarke and Willis, 1984, p.3). Reid (1980, pp.53-54) provides a similar list of employers' complaints, but with greater emphasis on poor work attitudes. Summaries of employers' complaints can be found in a number of sources (Education Group 1, 1981; Avent, 1982; Roderick and Stephens, 1982; Cuming, 1983 - as examples).

In the 1980s, employer criticisms of school-leavers and British schooling continued unabated. In their employers survey in Salford, Finn and Markall (1981) found that one-third of employers' complaints centred on formal schooling (especially numeracy and literacy) but two-thirds concerned issues of reliability, discipline and character (p.38). Other studies undertaken in the 1980s (for example, Cuming, 1983; Brown, 1987; Wellington, 1987a,b; Rikowski, 1992) indicated that employer criticisms of young people as workers and the record of British schools as work preparation agencies were still rife.

Despite momentous changes in compulsory schooling (Education Reform Act 1988, the National Curriculum), the rise of work experience schemes and the extension of school-industry links heightened by the introduction of General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQ) in the mid-1990s (Rikowski, 1994), the 1990s witnessed continued employer dissatisfaction with young people as potential employees. Thus, the Industry in Education study of 1996, Towards Employability, would not have been out of place in 1986, or even 1976: with its characterisation of schools-leavers as being deficient in initiative, motivation and communication skills and as having insufficient knowledge of industrial work patterns (Industry in Education, 1996; Meagher, 1998).

As a number of analysts, historians and researchers have noted (Reeder, 1979; Frith, 1980; Avent, 1982); employer complaints about the quality of school-leavers seem perennial, perhaps as old as the dawn of capitalism [3]. Nor are employer complaints about school-leavers confined to Britain. Oxenham (1984) pointed to the international dimension of employers' complaints about the quality of school-leavers. He provided evidence from Sri Lanka, India, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya on employer perceptions that educational standards were falling. More recently, Leroux and Lafleur (1995), Forster (1996) and Rosenbaum and Binder (1997) have pointed to gaps between employers' needs regarding youth labour and the attributes of young people themselves - in Canada, Australia and the United States respectively. There is also a substantial literature within a Western European context regarding mismatch between the qualities and attributes sought in young people by employers and the actual skills, competencies, work attitudes and personal qualities possessed by young people. In recent years the European perception of the crisis surrounding education and the 'needs of industry' has been infused by a discourse based on a perceived requirement for flexible workers in a post-modern labour market involving the 'end of the career' and the rise of episodic work patterns (Jaakkola, Ropo and Autio, 1995; Merson, 1996).

What this brief national, historical and international survey of employers' complaints about school-leavers and youth-as-labour points towards is that the 'needs of industry' in relation to youth labour have always, and possibly everywhere, been problematic for employers - in perpetual disharmony with the qualities and capabilities of actually existing young people. Such an endemic dysfunctionality puts the onus on employers to offer clear statements of their ‘needs’ regarding young workers in order that schools and training institutions can attempt to produce young people with the personal qualities, skills and competencies that employers require. Yet it is at this point that the house of cards collapses. Various studies and analyses - examined later - have indicated that employers' statements regarding their needs in relation to youth labour are either ambiguous, or confused or downright contradictory. On the back of some guiding assumptions, this article provides a framework through which employers' statements about their 'needs' can be made more coherent. It attempts to rethink the concept of 'needs of industry' so that some elementary gaffes - by employers and researchers - are less likely to be made in the future. This article indicates that part of the reason why employers have provided apparently incoherent and vague statements regarding their youth labour needs is that researchers and analysts have oversimplified the whole question in a way analogous to the project of those post-16 curriculum theorists who seek 'coherence' in the 16-19 curriculum, when no such coherence is possible. Researchers have looked for generalised messages from employers - starting out from questions along the lines of 'what they are looking for' in young recruits (Cuming, 1983; Rikowski, 1992 - as examples) - when greater specificity is required. This specificity is ultimately concerned with thinking through the 'needs of industry' in terms of categories, functions and aggregates of capital. However, there is much more to making sense of employers’ statements regarding their ‘needs’ than this; the following outline of the argument makes this clear.

A few years ago, Jerry Wellington posed a series of questions that highlighted some key problems for any Government, business organisations and interests and educationalists with at least one foot in the vocationalist camp:

1. What do they [employers] 'need' from the education and training systems?
2. Can the needs of employers form a sound basis for the curriculum, in particular the post-16 curriculum?
3. How far should we take account of the needs of employers in constructing a post-16 curriculum for the future?
(Wellington, 1994, pp.307-308).

The problem with attempting to provide answers to these questions, argues Wellington, is that research on employers’ needs concerning what they want from schools in terms of preparing young people for work shows that such needs are either vaguely expressed, meaningless or contradictory. In another paper, Wellington (1986) argued that schools receive ‘inconsistent messages’ from employers regarding what skills, attitudes and personal qualities they ought to be developing in young people as future workers.

Others have pointed to employer fickleness and imprecision on the issue of clarifying the goals underpinning the labour preparation project for schools and training organisations. The Central Policy Review Staff report (Central Policy Review Staff, 1980) noted that employers seemed confused or uncertain about their ‘needs’. Finn (1987) noted that:

“... employers' educational needs were extremely ambiguous. They could in fact be contradictory, confused or simply unknown” (p.119).

Frith (1979), Hall (1984), Brown (1987a,b) and Hyland (1996) have made similar points. With a few exceptions (Education Group 1, 1981; Finn, 1979, 1982, 1987) there has been little real analysis of the source of these contradictions and confusions.

From an analysis of studies centred on employers' educational needs and a further batch of studies focusing on the recruitment process, Wellington (1994) pinpointed a number of dimensions through which definitions of such needs varied. These dimensions were:

1. The age group of young people being considered;
2. The size of companies;
3. The people asked to give evidence on 'what employers were looking for' (all p.312);
4. Disjunctures between stated and actual ‘needs’ as a function of real decisions made by recruiters in the recruitment process (p.333-314);
5. The fact that 'employers' are a varied group (Confederation of British Industry leaders, company directors, personnel staff and supervisors);
6. Differences between the needs of industry in a ‘global sense’ and the needs of individual capitals;
7. Differences between what employers say they want (subjectively) from young workers and what they (objectively) need (all p.319).

For Wellington, it was these considerations which led employers towards making confusing and contradictory statements regarding their educational needs, and hence for researchers to highlight confused employer syndrome. Whilst I have argued elsewhere (Rikowski, 1998/2001) that Wellington’s analysis holds valuable insights regarding understanding ‘confused employer syndrome’, I also argue (Ibid.) that his analysis is superficial: it fails to indicate why employers are necessarily confused about their labour ‘needs’. A deeper analysis is required.

This analysis demonstrates that employers can’t ever get what they want from schools in terms of the skills, work attitudes and other qualities of young people deemed essential for effective, profit-making labour. Worse: they can’t even get what they need in this respect – as such needs are expressions of necessary contradictions based on the nature of the commodity that is the living force generating the whole of contemporary society: labour-power. Consequently, schools and training institutions – indeed the whole education and training system – can never give employers what they need, as aspects of labour-power need are expressions of the contradiction-ridden living commodity that is labour-power. On this account, employers are doomed to talk nonsense about young people (or any other groups of workers) and the ‘needs of industry’. They are necessarily confused, though my forthcoming article – Education for Industry: A Complex Technicism (Rikowski, 1998/2001) – indicates how, through making a number of (unwarranted) assumptions, their confusion can be ameliorated.

The paper begins by demonstrating that labour-power is at the heart of employers’ needs statements regarding youth labour. Labour-power, of course, is a concept typically used my followers of Karl Marx. Thus: from the outset, the paper’s arguments are developed with reference to the writings of Marx. They have also been developed out of certain writings drawn from the small world of Marxist educational theory and key texts in Marxist theory. On the former, the work of Paula Allman (1999, 2000) has been particularly significant. Regarding the latter, the writings of Moishe Postone (1996), Bertell Ollman (1971, 1976, 1993) and Michael Neary (1997, 1998, 1999) have influenced the arguments in the paper, along with the communist theory of Geoff Waite (1996) and Open Marxism (e.g. the writings of John Holloway and Werner Bonefeld).

One stereotypical ascription pertaining to Marxist educational theorists is that ‘they don’t do research’. Some of my own empirical and historical studies form a backdrop to the paper. My research on apprenticeship in the early 1980s is particularly significant in terms of the arguments presented here (Rikowski, 1990, 1996a-b, 1999a). This was a study of the recruitment of engineering apprentices in ‘Midtown’ (the Midtown engineering employers’ study – MEES). The research focused on the criteria, methods and channels of recruitment – and some data from this research figure in this paper. More recently, research on working students in the early-mid 1990s (Rikowski, 1993, 2000b) and horological training (Rikowski, 2000a) has yielded some insights for this paper. Theoretical work on the ‘products’ of schooling (schooling as a form of social production) also plays a significant role in relation to the emphasis on labour-power in this paper (from Rikowski, 1995), along with my own work on Marxist educational theory (Rikowski, 1996c, 1997, 1999b).

The paper presents six theses on why employers’ labour-power needs are contradictory and hence doomed to frustration. The theses do not have the same status. The first two present practical difficulties in terms of making sense of employers’ ‘needs statements’, and meeting their expressed labour-power needs. Theses 3-6 demonstrates why, on the basis of logic and contradiction, employers’ labour-power needs can’t ever be met.


One temptation in clarifying the concept of ‘needs of industry’ might be to explore the concept of ‘need’ itself: to locate different categories of need, define criteria for meeting such needs and to conceptually differentiate needs from wants (Wellington, 1994). This could be an abstract philosophical enterprise (undertaken within the orbit of conceptual philosophy), or it might focus on ‘skills discourse’, or ‘skills talk’ (following Barrow’s (1987) critical examination; see also Hyland’s (1999) critique of ‘skills talk’).

In an earlier paper (Rikowski, 1990), it was argued that a materialist (rather than an abstract conceptual) analysis was the way forward. The central questions seemed to be:

1. What type of 'needs' - in empirical terms, with reference to research - are these 'needs of industry'?
2. How these 'needs' might be theorised in relation to what employers are concerned with - the production, exchange and distribution of commodities?

On the first question, I have argued at length elsewhere (Rikowski, 1990, 1996a) that the ‘needs of industry’ are essentially labour-power needs. For Marx, labour-power is:

“… the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description” (1867, p.164).

Of course, employers do not use this term; they are not Marxists. They do not use the term 'surplus-value' either. These concepts suggest real processes and phenomena which are the material foundations underneath what we actually observe in everyday life within neo-capitalist technoculture (Waite, 1996).

At the level of the labour market (really a ‘market in labour-power’, following McNally, 1993), labour-power is the capacity to labour, labour capacity – a labour potential. Within the labour process however, labour-power becomes a real active force (and this is reflected in Marx’s definition above). As Marx notes, labour-power ‘… becomes a reality only when it has been solicited by capital, is set in motion’ (Marx, 1858, p.267 – my emphasis). That is, it exists only through its transformation into labour within the labour process. In the labour market, it has a virtual social existence.

Within the social universe of capital – the social universe in which we currently exist – labour-power, a weird living commodity, has the capacity to generate more value (incorporated within the general class of commodities produced within the labour process) than that as represented in the wage: surplus-value. Surplus-value is the lifeblood of capital, and the social energy (substance) of its many im/material forms (money, state, and so on). Capital is value-in-motion (Kay and Mott, 1982; Allman, 2000). The fundamental phenomena of capitalism are all on the move. Labour-power’s social force is transformed into labour within the labour process. This social force – through acts of labour, the labour process – then moves through a series of transformations into value and then (when a critical point has been reached) into surplus-value and then into capital. Labour also moves (Neary, 1999): as it becomes incorporated within commodities it generates value and surplus-value that morphs into capital, which then assumes a number of forms (money, state etc.). Thirdly, value – as substance of the social universe of capital – is the social energy that undergoes transformations in the form of capital. Finally, capital itself moves (Holloway, 1995):

“‘Capital moves’ does not mean that capital is normally still and now moves, but that capital is inherently mobile. Capital, then, is a social relation. But it is not simply a social relation of exploitation/subordination/domination. It is a social relation of subordination (etc.) in which the defining presence of insubordination is expressed as unceasing restlessness, mobility. This mobility is both functional (as capital is metamorphosed from productive to commodity to money capital, and back) and spatial (as capital flows/flees through the world in search of means of self-expansion)” (Holloway, 1995, p.141).

These forms of constant movement come to haunt all attempts to ‘fix’ labour-power as static phenomenon capable of being socially produced in definitive form – as shown later on.

A key issue is the nature of labour-power, especially what Marx actually meant by ‘mental’ capacities in his seminal definition as previously given. In conventional research, theory and writing on the ‘needs of industry’, and indeed in almost all research and writing (there isn’t much “theory”) on post-compulsory education and training (PCET), the emphasis tends to be on ‘skills’ and/or competencies. However, even on a basic empirical level this makes no sense. As the Appendix to this paper shows, when employers are asked ‘what they are looking for’ in recruit their answers always go way beyond a narrow concern with skills and competencies. Typically, it is work and social attitudes and personality traits that are to the fore as recruitment criteria. Whilst many have noted this point, its implications are typically ignored and PCET and education researchers revert back to thinking and writing in terms of ‘skills’ and competencies. The concept of human capital relates principally to these too. For many analysts (e.g. Frith, 1980; Ashton and Maguire, 1980; Finn, 1982, 1987), there is a kind of ‘stand back in amazement’ attitude when they realise that work attitudes and personality traits are more important than skill(s) in terms of employers’ recruitment criteria. They then typically shift back into a ‘skills mode’ when discussing employers’ ‘labour needs’. Rather, Hohn’s (1988) observations are endorsed here:

“The term ‘qualification’ or ‘skill’ covers so many characteristics of the applicant that it becomes vague, ambiguous and almost useless for an analysis of the recruitment process” (p.83).

However, I would go further than Hohn: the notion of skill on its own is totally useless for understanding employers’ labour needs as expressed in recruitment, or as the basis for an understanding of labour in the labour process. Furthermore, merely adding on competencies and/or qualification(s) fails to remedy the situation. Such strategies fail to recognise the empirical bottom-line: the significance of attitudes and personality. In a previous paper (Rikowski, 1990) I argued that the obvious move – that would encapsulate the full range of attributes sought in the recruitment process, the social site where employers operationalise their conceptions of their labour ‘needs’ (Rikowski, 1992) – was to utilise the concept of labour-power. The ‘needs of industry’ discourse, therefore, is essentially concerned with labour-power needs. These ‘needs of industry’ are labour-power needs.

Perhaps two illustrations might help. Beck (1981) gives an extract from a speech made by Sir John Methven when he was Director General of the Confederation of Industry (CBI). The speech was on 'What Industry Wants' from school-leavers (p.92). Methven noted that:

“In the last analysis, industry requires from the education system much the same as other employers - that young people should be literate, numerate, accurate and articulate and capable of initiative and responsibility. Apart from the scholastic requirements ... employers are also looking more closely for evidence of such personal qualities as self-discipline, right attitudes to work, ability to communicate and work as a team, a critical and thinking approach to problems, willingness to accept change ...” (Beck, 1981, p.93).

Secondly, in The Guardian of 22nd August 1994, an article entitled 'University Swots Worry Employers' (p.4) also set out what employers required from graduates on the basis of a research project carried out at the University of Central England in Birmingham:

“Employers are worried about a new breed of swots emerging from university without having done much except study ... There are fears that increased pressure on students to achieve good degrees and often to earn money in term-time jobs is steering many away from the clubs and societies which have been a feature of British student life. But it is the kind of communication skills and teamwork nurtured in student societies and sports that employers value.”

In the Methven example, the items listed are labour-power (the capacity to labour) attributes in all but name [4]. They are attributes of the person that can be activated through an act of will which transforms the capacity to labour (labour-power) into actual labour in the labour process. In the 'Swots' example, the collective aspect of labour-power (Rikowski, 1990; and later in this paper) is highlighted; the ability to work in teams, communicate with others and so on. Thus, it is not just a case of re-interpreting employers' needs statements as statements about labour-power, but starting from the position that these statements are expressions of perceived labour-power needs.

In another paper (Rikowski, 1996b) I provided further reasons regarding why labour-power should form the basis of understanding economy-education relations. First, studies of the recruitment process point towards the need to abandon notions of ‘skill’ or competence in order to grasp the relations between schooling, labour and capital accumulation. The recruitment process is the articulation and a key mediating phenomenon between education and work for young workers (Rikowski, 1992). It is where employers’ needs enter through the operationalisation of recruitment criteria.

Secondly, recruitment studies on young people (such as MSC, 1978; Ashton and Maguire, 1980; Hunt and Small, 1981; Cuming, 1983; Rikowski; 1990, 1991, 1992; Industry in Education, 1996) have consistently indicated that employers look for work attitudes more than ‘skills’ or categories of skill or competence. These studies indicate that to view employers’ needs in terms of simple and narrow categories such as 'skill' is erroneous, even at the level of appearance. Employers’ needs regarding youth labour must be grasped through a much broader concept: labour-power (Rikowski, 1990, 1996a). It was argued in Rikowski (1991, 1992) that the labour-power assessment is at the heart of the recruitment process. It is in the recruitment process that employers concretely express their labour power ‘needs’ – through criteria and methods of recruitment (1992). As Marx noted:

“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 …” (Marx, 1867, p.179).

The recruitment process is where employers attempt to find labour-powers ‘best suited’ to value-production within their labour processes.

Thirdly, historical analysis of employers’ statements on youth labour (as undertaken in Rikowski, 1990 – based on reading of the journals of the Industrial Society and the Institute of Personnel Management going back to the First World War) indicates a concern with a broad range of attributes in young people. Only the concept of labour-power is expansive enough to capture the full range.

Once it is acknowledged that the so-called ‘needs of industry’ in conventional discourse are essentially labour-power needs, it then becomes quite easy to show and understand why it is that employers are so confused about these ‘needs’, and why these can never be satisfied. Labour-power, as shall be shown, is a social force incorporated within personhood and flowing throughout it (it is not a ‘thing’ separate from, but within, the person). It incorporates a series of contradictions and is subject to a number of social drives expressed as infinitudes. It is these that screw-up labour-power, and employers’ attempts to make sense of (or to rationalise) it in terms of the contradictory labour requirements of their own labour processes. The contradictions incorporated within labour-power confound attempts to rationally itemise labour-power attributes. However, the first two theses presented in this paper indicate that even when these contradictions are not addressed, there is still a colossal (and currently practically impossible) task of meeting the ‘needs of industry’ as labour-power needs.

Categories and functions of capital generate different labour-power needs

The first thesis is that: Categories and functions of capital generate different labour-power needs. That is, labour-power attributes (the itemised elements of labour-power, as in Rikowski (this paper) and Cuming (1983) in the Appendix) for effective labour performance within the labour process will vary – on the basis of categories and functions of capital.

The categories/functions of capital are presented by starting at the most general level, capital-in-general, and ending with individual capitals (units of capital, firms in competition). These are the two logically necessary categories of capital, without which the capitalist system could not exist (Richards, 1979). Adventitious categories are dependent upon both definitions of segments which are less than the totality of capital as abstract space of capital accumulation (capital-in-general), and more than individual capitals, and the ways that capitals are grouped and formed historically through organising for perceived similarities. For example, it is possible to talk about the construction industry as a sector of capital; there are enough similarities in the product and representatives of capital organise - through trade and employer organisations - around the interests of those employed in what is perceived as 'construction'. Unlike capital-in-general and individual capitals, the basic categories necessary for an understanding on the dynamics of capitalism, adventitious categories can never be theoretically (or empirically) differentiated (e.g. the engineering and plastics sectors of capital manifest some overlap) and are dependent to some extent on conventional and historical delineations.

On this basis, the concept of ‘labour-power needs’ of capital points towards possible relationships between types of labour-power called forth by, and defined by, categories (and functions) of capital, as follows:

Capital-in-general was a real abstraction developed by Marx (in the first two volumes of Capital) in order to understand the essence of capital – its productive form and transformations beneath the “noise” of market relations (Allman, 2000). Capitalism, as a society incorporating abstract phenomena (e.g. abstract labour) and social relations as its core features (Postone, 1996), is also a society where these abstractions come take on real existence and have the power to assume concrete forms through metamorphosis, and also within forms of consciousness and social thought. Thus, labour-power for capital-in-general refers to the labour-power requirements that all capitals supposedly have in common. This yields a contemporary concern with transferable, core or key skills, as clumsy attempts to pin these generalities down. They are also narrow constructs, based on a denial of labour-power as what representatives of capital ‘need’. A variant of this would be the labour-power requirements for labouring within any possible form of capital. Secondly, it would include all those work attitudes, personal attributes and other itemised constituents of labour-power necessary to move between different capitals throughout the labour-power market - which in capitalism is formally free. In contemporary debates, the attributes of flexibility and adaptability of workers are relevant here.

Totality of capitals
This is not the same as capital-in-general, but is a concrete category, as the aggregate of existing individual capitals. First, in toto, the labour-power needs of the totality of capital refer to the labour-power requirements of all existing capitals. Secondly, (and also empirically) these needs exist in relation to all extant capitals over the lifetime of individual workers.

The National Capital
The labour-power needs of national capitals refer to those labour-power capacities and attributes required for labouring in any labour process throughout the national capital. The refinements in relation to moving around the national labour market and the time-based considerations (as with capital-in-general) also apply - but would be subsumed under capital-in-general, as noted above. Within this, there is the drive for quality (of labour-power) vis-à-vis other national capitals for gaining a competitive edge. This category could be broken down into region and locality.

Fractions of Capital (Manufacturing, Finance, Service, Landed)
This involves labour-power being viewed in relation to 'fractions' of capital; the large congealments of capital producing broadly similar types of commodities (manufactured goods, financial products, services - including state welfare as well as private sector services and land-based industries). The General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ) in Manufacturing shows that this is not just fantasy. In practice, students taking this course are being given a general preparation for work in manufacturing industry.

Sectors of Capital (Particular Industries - including Welfare State forms)
Basically, this involves the labour-power needs of particular industries that may include welfare state forms (as in the health industry). Trade associations and industrial relations (as well as historical similarities between, and continuities within, product types) establish sectors of capital.

Individual Capitals The labour-power needs of individual capitals (units of capital accumulation, firms, and enterprises) contain a number of subtleties. First, the individual capital can be broken down into occupational positions or jobs. Secondly, there is an internal labour market - of promotion, movement around the capital - for labourers.

Functions of Capital
These refer to general functions that exist in definable way across categories of capitals. For example, management, accountancy and personnel functions.

It is clear from the above (probably not exhaustive) outline that labour-power needs are highly complex and that they can be approached and viewed from a number of perspectives (through the various categories/functions of capital). The enormity of the practical task of preparing labour-powers for capital is obvious. Practically, short of science fiction scenarios (through labour-power attributes being drug- or techno-driven, or both in combination), it seems a daunting prospect for education and training systems charged with the task of meeting capital's labour-power requirements in combination (i.e. in relation to several categories). In socially producing labour-power for the totality of capitals, the enumeration of labour-power needs (by employers), and then attempts to satisfy them (through education/training systems), is becomes practically (though not logically) impossible. Of course, in practice, people enter specific jobs in specific capitals. But this misses the point: even if someone is thoroughly prepared to be an accountant, they might not also be equipped with the labour-power attributes to fly aeroplanes.

When employers talk about the labour-power attributes they require, they tend to skip blithely between categories and functions – unaware of the confusion entailed. In my Education for Industry (1998/2001) article I constructed a ‘needs filter’ that could be used to systematise employers’ statements regarding their labour-power needs. It could help employers to talk more meaningfully about their labour-power needs. Ultimately, as shall be shown later, such Mickey Mouse devices only hide depth of the problem facing employers when labour-power needs are either described or at the heart of social production through education and training.

Employers have a lack of knowledge concerning their own labour processes and the labour-power attributes necessary for the effective transformation of labour-power into labour

This is quite straightforward. Employers are faced with the prospect of having exhaustive knowledge of their own labour processes and the labour-power attributes necessary for the effective transformation of labour-power into labour if: (a) they are to have an exhaustive list of labour-power attributes; and (b) education and training systems are to attempt to socially produce these within individuals. Of course, the full translation (labour-power needs as lists of labour-power attributes resulting in developed individuals incorporating these within their persons) may be held back by the resources, knowledges and indeed deficiencies within the labour-powers of those involved in labour-power production (teachers, lecturers), but that is not the point. Job and task analysis would play a significant role (as it has, historically, on the back of Taylorism).

The task is made more difficult by the recognition (by employers themselves, and careers advisors) that the pace of change in contemporary economies is such that the time span required for the full translation (enumeration of labour-power attributes to their social production and eventual utilisation in the labour process) is itself under pressure. Furthermore, the degree of occupational and functional flexibility (said to be on the increase: see Ainley, 1999) in the labour-power market, and the challenge to enumerating labour-power attributes required for around and between labour processes, poses another challenge to meeting capital’s labour-power needs. Finally, it should be borne in mind that knowledge of labour-power attributes would include knowledge of the required work and social attitudes and personality traits required by labour-powers: the social production of these, involving the objectification of human subjectivity itself - may be cost-prohibitive and generate resistance from human subjects.

Theses 1-2 pose no logical, but merely practical difficulties to the enumeration of labour-power needs and their translation into programmes of social production of labour-power that aim to fix the required attributes within persons. With the aid of microchip technology – chips in brains in re-programmable modes so that the necessary labour-power attributes can be inscribed with the person - and other future-oriented (cyborg) solutions may cut down on some of the practical problems. Indeed, the DTI’s Future Unit is currently sponsoring one company’s (fastfuture.com) efforts to design the ‘perfect employee’ [5]. The first two theses were founded, however, on a certain perspective of capital – capital as external to labour – that I have characterised elsewhere as degenerate (Rikowski, 1998/2001). This concept of capital assumes that labour and capital interact as externalities. This is the essential superficiality of the ‘analysis’ so far advanced. This kind of analysis facilitates a structuralist and functionalist social-theoretical outlook that invokes the possibility of the pertinent needs being satisfied. As I have criticised heavily elsewhere those forms of Marxist educational theory that incorporate both functionalism and structuralism (Rikowski, 1996c, 1997), it would be pretty poor if I was then to lapse back into these debilitating forms of social theorising. Furthermore, as Postone (1996) notes: capital is a blind social force ‘without ego’ – it has no needs, as such.

The language of ‘needs’, for this paper, functioned as a way into exploring labour-power within the social universe of capital. On this basis, the depth of labour-power contradictions can be exposed. Hereon, any logical possibility of employers’ labour-power needs being met is dashed.

The social drive to increase the quality of labour-power attributes is infinite: therefore, the notion of ‘labour-power need’ dissolves.

This thesis sounds simple, but its implications are immense. The basic idea is this: the social drive to increase the quality of labour-power is infinite, and this is so as relative surplus-value increases the higher the quality of labour-power. It should be remembered that labour-power has been redefined so as to include its full range of attributes – some of which strike at the core of the ‘human’, humanity itself. Furthermore, the social drive to increase labour-power quality is exerted on all labour-power attributes and on each individually and on combinations. As I argued elsewhere (Rikowski, 1999b), the stakes are high: as humans we are becoming capitalised, increasingly becoming capital – human capital. It is because of the fact that capital’s social drives are infinite that this is so (though, as I explain in Education, Capital and the Transhuman (1999b) there is a way out, and we are driven to find it).

The basic thesis needs unpacking. Relative surplus-value production involves the intensification of labour. The most widely discussed form of relative surplus-value production is the application of machinery to the labour process. This strategy cuts the labour-time necessary for workers to reproduce the value equal to that represented in their own wage (for meeting their own reproduction needs), thus increasing the proportion of labour-time (within the day, week or whatever) available for surplus,-value generation through unrequited labour. Raising the quality of human labour-power, either in toto or in for some of its attributes (particular skills, personal capacities etc.) has the same effect. However, there is no end point to this: it is an infinite social drive. Any stopping point cannot be socially validated within the universe of capital – a social universe where its most fundamental phenomena (e.g. value, labour-power, labour, capital etc.) are in motion, and its substance (value) expanding. As there is no ultimate level of profit, so the drive to enhance the quality of labour-power has no social limits. As social drive, it is limited by its clash with capital’s other social drives. In concrete terms, the social drive to enhance labour-power quality is limited as its practical expression (in concrete education and training activities and in the other elements that constitute the social production of labour-power in any particular case) runs up against practical constraints. But these do not invalidate the social drive itself – which is an abstract, but also real and permanent feature of capitalist society. What this entails is that labour-power attributes cannot be ‘fixed’ in terms of the ways in which their practical expression enhances surplus-value production. Thus: even if labour-power attributes for a particular type of labour-power could be comprehensively listed, specification of the intensity of their expression within the labour process could not be socially validated on the basis of value generation. Intensity of labour-power expression, in toto and for particular attributes, resolves itself into class struggle and antagonism at the point of production, not some social technicist or managerialist fixation.

From Thesis Three, it follows that the judgements of labour-power quality can only be made relative to each other.

As there is no absolute standard regarding the quality of labour-power as between two individual labourers, two individual capitals or two national capitals, then only relative judgements can be made. This invalidates any abstract talk of ‘standards’ in education and training insofar as labour-power outputs (in toto or on particular attributes) are concerned. Indeed, the intensification of comparison in education and training (league tables, international comparisons on mathematics test scores and so on) is a manifestation of the relativity of labour-power quality.

This thesis, together with Thesis Four, precludes any notion of labour-power need. Merely listing labour-power attributes (as in conventional research, and in employers’ ‘needs’ statements) is inadequate. The quality of each attribute and the intensity of their expression must be part of the description. However, as capital’s ‘labour-power needs’ can only be grasped in relation to an infinite social drive (value-production) and labour-power quality understood as a relative relation, these considerations precludes specification of such ‘needs’ on both counts. At this point, the concept of ‘labour-power needs’ dissolves. In Theses Five and Six it is substituted by focus on labour-power as contradictory social force.

Labour-power is a social force within the ‘human’ that incorporates aspects of capital in contradiction,. Labour-power therefore is an inherently contradictory phenomenon.

Moishe Postone (1996) in Time, Labor and Social Domination points towards the distinction in Marx’s work between the use-value aspect of labour and the value-aspect. The use-value aspect of labour pertains to the production of useful things as commodities within the labour process. The value aspect refers to the process of valorisation: the value-creating process – the production of value and surplus-value. There are value and use-value aspects of labour-power too, and to some extent this can be seen with reference to the labour-power attributes listed in the Appendix – though there is never a one-to-one relationship between particular attributes and a particular aspect of labour-power (as this would imply a real division within labour-power itself, that would negate its constitution as social force incorporated within the totality of personhood).

The value aspect of labour-power is dominated by valorisation considerations, and hinges on the quantitative dimension of labour-power – capacity of labourers to work at speed, with reference to volume and velocity, and also to work passively, repetitively and routinely in relation to labouring act. The use-value aspect of labour-power rests upon the qualitative dimension of labour-power. It pertains to the capacity of workers to be active and creative, to use initiative, to be flexible and adaptable, to work with due care, attention and consideration – in fact to care about quality – and to take an active interest and pride in work. The qualitative, use-value aspect of labour-power relates to the use-value dimension of labour itself, which ensures that goods products are of sufficient quality for them to be useful and hence primed for sale. Useless, low quality products are for the scrap heap in the long-run (as clever marketing tricks can’t disguise crap products for ever): and then value that they incorporate is also destroyed – never to be realised surplus-value and capital.

The drives towards quantitative (value) and qualitative (use-value) aspects of both labour and labour-power are experienced as contradictions with everyday working life. On the one hand, workers are driven on by the speed of valorisation, on the other they must have regard to quality (which eats into labour-time). This contradiction is expressed also in terms of how employers recruit labour-powers (their ‘needs’ expressed as recruitment criteria) and also in terms of the labour-power attributes called forth by representatives of capital within the social production of labour-power itself (education and training and other elements). Thus: education and training cannot meet the ‘needs of industry’ in principle, as a matter of logic. Neither can they be described in a coherent manner. Labour-power needs statements (list of labour-power attributes) incorporate the contradiction between value and use-value aspects of labour-power. No education and training system can ever, logically, ‘work’ for capital. For if ‘work for capital’ means something in absolute terms it would entail abolition of this contradiction, which is inherent in the capital-labour relation and incorporated within labour-power.

As I have shown in other works (Rikowski, 1990, 1996a) there are other labour-power aspects (the subjective, collective and exchange-value aspects) that have other contradictory consequences – and these also rebound on attempts to systematise and arrive at logically coherent account of labour-power needs and attributes. These contradictions shall be drawn out in future work.

As labour-power is a social force incorporated within personhood, a force that flows throughout personhood, then it is necessarily related to persons as labourers against capital (as well as within it). Thus: labour-power is ultimately subject to and under the sway of potentially hostile (for capital) will – on an individual and collective basis (association of labourers in struggle).

There is no strict divide between labour-power and personhood (demonstrated in Rikowski, 1999b). We labour in capital – but also against capital (Neary, 1997). As labour, labourers have antithetic desires, drives and attributes in relation to capital – summarised as ‘more wages, for less work in increasingly better working conditions’, and also the expression of immediate desires and wants (suppressed and subordinated as labour in capital). On the basis of these propositions, labour-power can never (within the personhood of labourers) be separated from the antagonistic desires and oppositional drives (against capital) based on its social existence as labour against capital. Labour-power, incorporated with the person of the labourer, is subject to the will of the labourer. ‘Goodwill’ can be withdrawn. No matter how well labour-power is socially produced, there is never final closure of the potential for resistance (as the opening quotation from Pavsek (p.1 in this paper) indicates).


In combination, this paper has explored just some of the contradictions inherent within labour-power, and contradictions flowing from labour-power’s relation to the person of the labourer and the labourer as labouring against capital as well as within it. Awareness of these contradictions provides a counter-balance to Utopian schemes for socially producing labour-power on a rational (contradiction-free) basis – such as the doomed fastfuture.com project.


1. This Introduction draws heavily upon my Education for Industry: A Complex Technicism – an unpublished paper first written in 1998, and subsequently revised for publication in 1999. It has been accepted for publication in the first issue of the Journal of Education and Work, 2001.
2. The 'traditional' youth labour market, within a British context, refers to the situation pertaining up to the mid-1970s where the vast majority of young people left school at the earliest opportunity to enter real jobs (as opposed to entering training schemes or staying on at school). The 1980s and 1990s have witnessed the recomposition of the youth labour market where the typical pattern for the majority is to stay on at school whilst working in part-time, vacation or casual employment (baby-sitting, car washing and so on) (Ainley, 1999; Rikowski, 2000b).
3. In the British context, analysis of management journals illustrates employer dissatisfaction with school-leavers and young people going back at least to the First World War. In the early 1980s, I examined the journals of the Industrial Society and the Institute of Personnel Management (which went through various name changes) going back to the 1920s. On criticisms of school leavers’ literacy and numeracy see: Hicks Bolton (1923); Distribution (1924); Manchester Guardian (1926) and Bews (1932). On complaints about character and attitude see: Hicks Bolton (1923); Kelly (1923); Schofield (1923); Kessler (1924); Marsh (1925) and Wilkinson (1931).
4. The concepts of ‘aspects of labour-power’ and ‘labour-power attributes’ are developed in Rikowski (1990), and this paper is available from the author on request, and the former is explored later on in this paper.
5. Enter the DTI web site www.dti.gov.uk, and click onto the ‘Information Society’ and then scroll through to DTI Future Unit. Click onto this, and you will find a list of organisations involved in the Unit’s Future Community, fastfuture.com being one of the members of this community.

This Appendix is not included here. If you would like to see it contact Glenn Rikowski: Rikowskigr@aol.com


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