Empire Goes to College


On Gigi Roggero’s The Production of Living Knowledge (Temple University Press)

Recent college graduates seem to have more debt than marketable skills. Could this actually be a good thing? 

By Chris Maisano

In a speech at the 2011 Left Forum in New York, British journalist Paul Mason described the bleak prospect confronting many graduating students in the rich countries of the world:

In my generation students had a liberal education, we didn’t pay for our education, we had a lot of time, we didn’t have to work, and we got jobs. Now, students are a key part of the workforce. Their casual labor keeps the coffee bars going, the cocktail bars going. They are part of an education industry, some tens of billions of dollars’ worth in the world. It’s a straight swap: You pay this, you get this commodity called a degree or a higher degree. They’re pretty crucial to the financial system: Citigroup alone made $200 million from its student-loan book in 2007. They’re tested to within an inch of their lives, every month, every year. The jobs they get are like indentured labour. “Wow, you get a job for a consultancy firm. I only have to stay with them for three years.”

Their life was going to be better, and now it looks like it’s going to be worse. 

During the Golden Age of postwar welfare capitalism, young intellectuals and students in the universities were a relatively privileged class. They enjoyed a measure of ease and bohemian freedom that is scarcely imaginable to the grad students and adjuncts in today’s university. As Jeffrey J. Williams observes in an essay on intellectuals in Dissent, “Gone is the relaxed, privileged way of life, whereby one got a job because one’s adviser made a phone call, and one received tenure on the basis of two or three articles and had a decade to mull over a book.”

The neoliberal transformation didn’t stop at the campus’s edge. As academic labor is increasingly defined by its precarious nature (more than 50 percent of teaching in higher education is now done by part-timers—over two-thirds in English departments), the university no longer constitutes a bulwark against the imperious demands of the market. As the economic crisis and the defunding of public higher education bear down ever more strongly on young people, we are confronted with the emergence of a hybrid figure—the student/worker with an averageof $24,000 instudentloandebt and a string of unstable, poorly paying jobs stretching to the horizon.

It is this “double crisis”—the interconnected crises of the global economy and the contemporary university—that Italian scholar-activist Gigi Roggero analyzes in The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America. A leading member of the Edufactoryand Uninomade collectives, Roggero situates his critique within the tradition of Italian autonomist Marxism, or post-Operaismo (“workerism”). Since its emergence in postwar Italy, autonomism has always been something of a heretical current within the larger body of Marxist thought. Its leading theorists—Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti, and Antonio Negri, among others—eschew the defeatism that is prevalent on the left and see revolutionary openings where others see only passivity and defeat. Their starting point is the “Copernican revolution” in Marxist thought instigated by Tronti, who argued that capitalist development is an ex post reaction to active working-class struggles for autonomy. Instead of the playthings of history, workers assume a heroic posture in the autonomist imagination, constituting the dynamic and creative side of the labor-capital dialectic. Unlike most other revolutionary Marxists, autonomists also reject the state, the party, and the trade union in favor of unmediated manifestations of working-class struggle that bypass all hierarchical and representative structures and refuse the imposition of work itself.

If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve read (or talked to someone who has read) Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire trilogy. Like those works, The Production of Living Knowledge displays all of the virtues and limitations of the autonomist tradition. It is alternately illuminating, specious, and baffling—a useful book ultimately undermined by its theoretical adventurousness.

Though couched in the language of European social thought, Roggero’s argument is not difficult to grasp once you hack through the thickets of theory-speak. In response to the international strikes of the late 1960s and early 1970s, capital embarked on a massive reorganization of work and production that shattered the postwar order. “Normal work”—full-time, year-round employment in mass production—was out. Lean production, precarity, and immaterial labor were in.

As momentous as these changes were, they were merely symptoms of a more profound transformation. Under the old Fordist regime, capital could organize work, production, and the realization of value from above and before the fact. But under the immaterial, knowledge-based, post-Fordist dispensation, capital loses this ability and must capture value after it has already been produced through free social cooperation, often on the Web, vampirically sucking the lifeblood of “living knowledge” and creating artificial scarcity through mechanisms like intellectual-property law. Welcome to the world of “cognitive capitalism,” in which the freelance knowledge worker, flitting frenetically from gig to gig and perpetually enslaved to her iPhone, has displaced the factory hand as the central figure of work and production.

Roggero offers 1968 as the key date in the emergence of what he calls the “mass university.” In response to student uprisings that swept the globe that year, the universities opened their doors to the masses in a process of “differential inclusion” akin to how the working poor were integrated into the financial system through credit cards and subprime mortgages. As the student population increased, the value—but not the cost—of higher education decreased. While in school, students experience not the high life of the mind but déclassement, working precarious jobs while struggling under mountains of debt.

As befits an autonomist, Roggero confronts these developments with revolutionary optimism. In creating an army of insecure knowledge workers, the university has produced a new political subject with the potential to confront cognitive capitalism and construct, in an inspiring phrase, the “new Soviets of living knowledge.” Such workers have certainly been present in large numbers at the Occupy Everything protests around the country.

Roggero is at his best when mercilessly attacking the widespread nostalgia among left-liberals and social democrats for postwar welfare capitalism, and the analogous impulse among academics to rebuild the ivory tower as a defense against corporatization. That world is dead and buried, an aberration in the history of capitalism, and it’s never coming back. As Roggero puts it, this “longing for an unlikely return to modernity” is a deeply conservative impulse that seeks to recuperate past privileges, especially for academics who once enjoyed lifetime employment and a high degree of professional autonomy and comfort.

His critique of the limitations of the trade union as a form of working class organization, particularly when it comes to graduate students and other kinds of precarious knowledge workers, is also bracing. He offers a convincing account of how such mega-universities as New York University have come to occupy a dominant position in cities and advances an illuminating analysis of the two-way relationship between the corporation and the university. I also salute his political program: “flexibility without precarization” at work, the provision of a universal social income decoupled from participation in wage labor, the abolition of student debt, and common ownership and control of social knowledge. Where do I sign up?

But for all its virtues, Roggero’s book is marred by his penchant for sweeping, unsubstantiated claims about the brave new world of cognitive capitalism—a general weakness of autonomism. A number of Roggero’s key propositions simply don’t bear much empirical scrutiny. Like Hardt and Negri, Roggero is fond of pronouncing the death of the nation-state. But despite international political and economic integration in recent decades, the nation-state is still central. As radical political economist Leo Panitch has pointedout, the neoliberal turn has not entailed the eclipse of the nation-state so much as a reordering of its priorities. It wasn’t “cognitive capitalism” that raised tuition fees in the U.K. last year; it was the Cameron-Clegg coalition government. Besides, international institutions like the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, and European Union are organizations of nation-states. And if the nation-state has ceased to function as an effective political and economic institution, who or what will finance and administer the social wage schemes and other policy innovations Roggero calls for?

More problematically, Roggero’s argument that the university has ceased to reproduce class inequality and hierarchy is fundamentally flawed, at least in relation to the U.S. In Europe, where youth unemployment has exploded and many college and university graduates struggle to find jobs suitable to their level of educational attainment, such a claim may be tenable, but in the U.S., educational credentials have probably never been so valuable, particularly in the midst of economic crisis and deunionization. As the cost of higher education continues its seemingly inexorable ascent, access to college remains markedly stratified by economic status, ensuring the reproduction of class relations through the educational system. While the official nationwide unemployment rate continues to hover just above 9 percent, over 95 percent of all college grads have jobs. The unemployment rate for everyone else is markedlyhigher. To be sure, a PhD in, say, queer media theory should not be confused with a golden ticket to economic security. But Roggero’s argument that the university no longer plays a role in articulating market hierarchies is off the mark.

The book’s biggest problem is its assumption that knowledge work constitutes the dominant form of labor in the advanced capitalist countries. Roggero critiques Richard Florida’s ideas about the “creative economy” and the techno-utopian reveries of economist Yochai Benkler, but he seems to share many of their premises. For all the attention contemporary theorists pay to so-called immaterial labor—the production of knowledge and affects rather than material goods—it’s easy to overlook the fact that many more U.S. workers work in decidedly low-tech, low-skill, uncreative jobs.

That’s not likely to change any time soon. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects, few of the 30 fastest-growing occupations in the coming decade require postsecondary education. Home health and nursing aides, fast-food workers, retail and office clerks, truck drivers, landscaping and groundskeeping workers, and construction workers will still vastly outnumber computer software engineers or network analysts. Though they may be increasingly insecure, the relatively small number of knowledge workers might be able to use their skills and knowledge to get the best deal that they can from their tech and media employers. The tens of millions of workers toiling at the lower rungs of the economy probably won’t be so lucky.

The Production of Living Knowledge offers useful insights about the dismal landscape of today’s university. But if the double crisis of the economy and university is to be effectively challenged, our analysis needs to be grounded in the realities of the situation that confronts us. Too often, Roggero’s critique walks on thin air.

Chris Maisano is a librarian, activist, and writer living and working in Brooklyn