The Revolution of Living Knowledge

We’re liv­ing in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion. We could refor­mu­late the clas­si­cal def­i­n­i­tion in the fol­low­ing terms: the rul­ing elites of glob­al cap­i­tal can­not live as in the past; the work­ers, the pre­car­i­ous, the stu­dents, the poor, the liv­ing knowl­edge refuse to live as in the past. In the glob­al cri­sis, the transna­tion­al strug­gles – from the North Africa insur­rec­tions to the acam­padas in Spain or Syn­tag­ma Square, from the Chilean uni­ver­si­ty move­ment to Occu­py and the Québec upris­ing – are com­posed by the con­ver­gence of a down­grad­ing mid­dle class and a pro­le­tari­at whose pover­ty is direct­ly pro­por­tion­al to its pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.

In this con­text, the uni­ver­si­ty is a key site. Not so much of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion: on the con­trary, the more that knowl­edge pro­duc­tion spreads through­out the social fac­to­ry, the less the uni­ver­si­ty is a priv­i­leged site of its trans­mis­sion – the Ivory Tow­er is def­i­nite­ly falling down. But the uni­ver­si­ty is a key site of strug­gles, of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of ter­ri­to­ri­al­iza­tion and gen­er­al­iza­tion.

The Edu-Fac­to­ry Col­lec­tive has defined this con­text as “dou­ble cri­sis” – that is, the cri­sis of the uni­ver­si­ty and the glob­al eco­nom­ic cri­sis. In fact, it’s impos­si­ble to grasp the trans­for­ma­tions and strug­gles of the uni­ver­si­ty with­out link­ing them to trans­for­ma­tions and strug­gles of labor and pro­duc­tion. So, in a steno­graph­ic way, let’s sketch five glob­al trends of the polit­i­cal econ­o­my of the uni­ver­si­ty, and its cri­sis. That is, five bat­tle­fields for the transna­tion­al strug­gles.

1. The cri­sis of the tra­di­tion­al idea of knowl­edge, which is also the cri­sis of the left­ist mythol­o­gy of knowl­edge as a neu­tral and nat­ur­al com­mon good to defend from the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion. In con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism, knowl­edge – a cen­tral source and means of pro­duc­tion – is not only a com­mod­i­ty, it is a cen­tral com­mod­i­ty in cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. In fact, there is no neu­tral­i­ty or nat­u­ral­ness of knowl­edge: it is always a mat­ter of pro­duc­tion, and with­in cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions it is a source of exploita­tion too.

When we speak of liv­ing knowl­edge, we are try­ing to iden­ti­fy the new com­po­si­tion of liv­ing labor, and the social­iza­tion of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion. This is an ambiva­lent process: knowl­edge is what is pro­duced in com­mon by liv­ing labor, and also what cap­i­tal exploits; it is the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the auton­o­my of social coop­er­a­tion, and it is what cap­i­tal cap­tures and val­orizes. In this ambiva­lent process, knowl­edge becomes a cen­tral bat­tle­field: the com­mon doesn’t exist in nature, but has to be pro­duced.

2. The cri­sis of dis­ci­plines, that is, of the mod­ern orga­ni­za­tion of knowl­edge. In the spring of 2009, answer­ing a ques­tion posed by the Queen of Eng­land, a group of main­stream econ­o­mists con­clud­ed that the dis­ci­pline of eco­nom­ics had not only been unable to fore­see the incip­i­ent cri­sis, but that it was also absolute­ly unable to under­stand any­thing about the econ­o­my, and could be held respon­si­ble for the cri­sis itself. The dis­course with­in oth­er dis­ci­plines has not been much dif­fer­ent: they are increas­ing­ly unable to explain what is occur­ring. The dis­ci­plines, as well as the rhetoric of inter­dis­ci­pli­nar­i­ty, rep­re­sent less and less a form of orga­ni­za­tion of knowl­edge, and more and more an arti­fi­cial mea­sure of the pro­duc­tion of liv­ing knowl­edge – in oth­er words, a tool of exploita­tion. In the cur­rent strug­gles what is at stake is a new and autonomous orga­ni­za­tion of the knowl­edge, based on its com­mon pro­duc­tion.

3. The cri­sis of the tra­di­tion­al fig­ure of the stu­dent. Since they are pro­duc­ers of knowl­edge, stu­dents are no longer a work­force in appren­tice­ship, but are imme­di­ate­ly work­ers, and pre­car­i­ous work­ers. In fact, there is a con­tin­u­ous over­lap­ping between the edu­ca­tion mar­ket and the labor mar­ket (think of “life­long learn­ing” or the accred­i­ta­tion sys­tem). It’s not by coin­ci­dence that the issues of labor (pre­car­i­ous­ness, deval­u­a­tion of the work­force, impov­er­ish­ment, cri­sis, etc.) have been cen­tral in stu­dent and uni­ver­si­ty strug­gles in the past few years. And for this rea­son, the uni­ver­si­ty strug­gles have a poten­tial­i­ty of polit­i­cal gen­er­al­iza­tion across the whole class com­po­si­tion.

4. The cri­sis of the mod­ern dialec­tic between pub­lic and pri­vate. Let’s con­sid­er the cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion of the uni­ver­si­ty. It doesn’t mean only the entrance of the pri­vate funds into pub­lic insti­tu­tions. In the Amer­i­can and Anglo-Sax­on mod­els, the def­i­n­i­tion of cor­po­rate uni­ver­si­ties doesn’t depend so much on their juridi­cal sta­tus: they are both pub­lic and pri­vate, and fund­ed by both state and cor­po­rate mon­ey. “Cor­po­rate uni­ver­si­ty” means that the uni­ver­si­ty itself has to become a cor­po­ra­tion – to work on the cal­cu­lus of cost-ben­e­fits, bud­get ratio­nal­i­ty, and cuts in work­force costs, to com­pete in the glob­al edu­ca­tion mar­ket. It means a uni­ver­si­ty beyond the dialec­tic between pub­lic and pri­vate, state and mar­ket. From the point of view of strug­gles, this means that we have noth­ing to defend: what is at stake is a con­stituent process of a new uni­ver­si­ty. We call it the uni­ver­si­ty of the com­mon.

5. The cri­sis of the uni­ver­si­ty as an ele­va­tor for the social mobil­i­ty. Pre­car­i­ous­ness and indebt­ed­ness – as per­ma­nent life con­di­tions – have demol­ished the idea that you go to the uni­ver­si­ty to have a posi­tion high­er than your back­ground. All in all, this means an irre­versible crash of cap­i­tal­ist pro­gres­sive promis­es, even in their indi­vid­u­al­ist com­pet­i­tive forms.

In the dis­man­tling of wel­fare – exem­pli­fied by the crazy tuition increas­es in Québec – debt becomes a per­verse way to access social needs (hous­ing, edu­ca­tion, health­care, mobil­i­ty, etc.). We can speak of a finan­cial­iza­tion of the uni­ver­si­ty and of life. The sys­tem of debt works as a process of canal­iza­tion of your choic­es, a dis­ci­pli­nary regime imposed not only on your present but first and fore­most as a mort­gage on your future. It is a moral regime of indi­vid­u­al­iza­tion: if you are in debt, you are in guilt. But exact­ly for these rea­sons, we have to oppose the moral­ist judg­ments from the Left about access to the cred­it sys­tem, because the use of cred­it also high­lights the incom­press­ibil­i­ty of the social needs. The Occu­py Stu­dent Debt Cam­paign, and its claim of a sort of col­lec­tive right to bank­rupt­cy for stu­dents, work­ers, poor, and pre­car­i­ous peo­ple, is strate­gic: on one hand, to re-appro­pri­ate the social wealth that we pro­duce in com­mon; on the oth­er hand, to refuse the moral regime of finan­cial cap­i­tal and its appa­ra­tus­es of indi­vid­u­al­iza­tion, and to cre­ate a col­lec­tive process. In fact, we can say that the strug­gle over cred­it-debt in con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism is the equiv­a­lent of the strug­gle over the wage in indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ism.

On these bases, let’s con­clude with a cou­ple of the polit­i­cal ques­tions raised by the transna­tion­al move­ments. On one hand, how can we build up a pol­i­tics of com­mon com­po­si­tion between the down­grad­ing mid­dle class and the pro­le­tar­i­ans with “no future,” these two ele­ments which are put in com­mon by impov­er­ish­ment and cap­i­tal­ist expro­pri­a­tion, but are seg­ment­ed by the appa­ra­tus­es of finan­cial cap­i­tal­ism (debt, indi­vid­u­al­iza­tion, salary strat­i­fi­ca­tion, iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, etc.)? This is a cen­tral node for the orga­ni­za­tion of the com­mon.

On the oth­er hand, nowa­days the bat­tle­field is not sit­u­at­ed in the defense of the pub­lic (because it is a pri­va­tized pub­lic), but in a con­stituent process beyond the sys­tem of polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The occu­pa­tion of the squares, the uni­ver­si­ty, and met­ro­pol­i­tan space is not a protest, there are no demands to address to the gov­ern­ment. This prac­tice indi­cates the imme­di­ate cre­ation of a new space and time, an embry­on­ic form of orga­ni­za­tion of the life in com­mon. The ques­tion is: how can we build up a col­lec­tive orga­ni­za­tion of our autonomous coop­er­a­tion, and destroy the mech­a­nism of cap­i­tal­ist cap­ture? How can we trans­form the uni­ver­si­ty into an insti­tu­tion of the com­mon?

If we’re liv­ing in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion, we also know that it will not lead in a mechan­i­cal move­ment to the rev­o­lu­tion itself, and the “1%” will not fall down if we do not throw them out. This is our task.

Author of the article

is a militant in the Edu-Factory collective and UniNomade network. He is also a precarious researcher at the University of Bologna, and the author of The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America (Temple University Press, 2011).