‘The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America’ reviewed by Dave Mesing

Reviewed by Dave Mesing

About the reviewer

Dave Mesing is a PhD student in philosophy at Villanova University in Philadelphia (mesingd AT …


After the death of neoliberal politics, Gigi Roggero argues, contemporary capitalism finds itself in a state of crisis in which the possibility exists for an autonomous organization of labor against capitalist command. When put this way, Roggero’s argument sounds too utopian for a context in which academic laborers face increasing precariousness, anxiety and pressure, at the same time as a decrease in compensation, influence and control. However, Roggero’s opening salvo that neoliberalism is finished is not a naïve profession of faith in the prospects for the struggle against capital; he is critically attuned to the possibilities and limits of the contemporary conjuncture. In positing the death of neoliberalism at the outset of his study, Roggero does not mean that specific instances of neoliberal politics or its effects no longer exist. Instead, he argues that a fundamental point of analysis necessary for an accurate understanding of the current political situation in both Europe and North America is that neoliberalism is no longer able to constitute itself as a coherent system.

Roggero refers to this situation as a double crisis: both the global economy and the western university are in trouble. For Roggero, crisis is no longer a stage in an economic cycle, but rather the contemporary form of capitalist accumulation, and the university is undergoing a similar crisis which he claims is intimately connected to the economic crisis. This is because Roggero takes his point of departure from the fact that ‘it is impossible to understand the transformations of the university if they are not connected to the transformations of labor and production.’ (3) In order to explore the commonalities between the crisis in capitalism and the crisis in the university, Roggero reads the conflicts within the university in terms of class struggle, power relations and production. He argues that the production and management of knowledge is central to contemporary relations of production, but notes that this thesis does not mean that there is an alternative between intellectual and manual labor, or that manual labor is disappearing.

As such, the production of knowledge is a key battlefield for class struggle in the present moment. The conflicts within the university that take place on this battlefield are not merely analogous to the crisis in capitalism, rather they are directly bound up with issues of labor and production. Roggero identifies three aspects that summarize the crisis of the university: the demise of the public-private dialectic, the devaluation of university knowledge as a means of social mobility, and the proliferation of borders amongst university disciplines, with neither old, new, intra-, inter-, or post-disciplines able to articulate the current crisis except as new forms of artificial measure for capitalist command.

The collapse of the public-private dialectic is most visible through the widespread corporatization of the university, the topic of Chapter 3. Roggero notes immediately that the process of corporatization in the university means not only that universities are increasingly behaving like corporations or receiving more funding from private companies, universities are actually becoming corporations through the application of various techniques lifted from the corporate world, including the implementation of competitive mechanisms for resource allocation, evaluation and accreditation as a measure of value for teaching and research, internal governance systems based on corporate management strategies, and the rethinking of institutional missions in line with market values. Roggero’s concrete examples of university change come through a comparison of US and Italian universities. Substantial differences between the two systems exist, such as the presence of a national authority over all universities in Italy and the 1980 Bayh-Doyle Act in the US, which incentivized intellectual property rights by linking them with federal funding. However, Roggero is able to generalize a set of tendencies present in both systems.

Such techniques explain why Roggero adopts the term `corporatization’ rather than `knowledge factory’ in order to describe the contemporary university. The term `knowledge factory’ helps to capture the attempts to organize and control labor within the university, but is analytically insufficient because it underestimates the differences between the university and the factory. Roggero argues that Taylorist organization cannot actually occur within universities, but is instead imposed only as a form of control, creating an artificial temporality for the measure of knowledge production.

The measure of knowledge production is precisely what is at stake in the corporatized university. Roggero suggests that ‘it is through knowledge, translated into the form of educational credit and certification, that the forms of precarization are articulated.’ (81) This structural connection between the transformation of the university and the labor market is the primary reason why university knowledge has become seriously discounted as a means of social mobility. The fact that a university degree is a necessary but not sufficient condition of entry into the labor market—what some refer to as ‘the “high-schoolization” of the university’—transfers the mechanisms of selection from outside to inside. (81) The university no longer participates in the hierarchization of labor power through the granting of degrees, but is rather subsumed within the labor market. Roggero refers to this process as differential inclusion: a person’s social and economic capital do not depend on whether she has gone to university, but rather in which form of accreditation she has participated, including professional development or post-degree programs that are often not formally recognized. Amidst this transformation in labor, the university stands as a privileged site of inquiry because it is ‘one of the metropolitan nodes of the regulation of labor power, in a context in which the borders between the educational market and the labor market become increasingly permeable: both of them find in the production of knowledge their central element.’ (84)

In addition to the transformation of university knowledge production within the crisis of contemporary capitalism, Roggero explores transnational class composition as well as the production of the common as key issues for contemporary politics. To carry this out, Roggero relies on and extends several key concepts from the postoperaismo tradition: the general intellect, cognitive capitalism, autonomy of migration, multitude, and the common. Chapter 1, ‘The Future is Archaic,’ and Chapter 2, ‘Coordinates of Capitalist Transition,’ situate Roggero’s understanding of the contemporary scene. He provides an account of the present as constituently ambivalent; social cooperation is absolutely productive, both for the organization of living labor and the potential for capitalist expropriation. Roggero specifies that his account of ambivalence is genealogical and not dialectical, insofar as he aims to track ‘the subjective matrix of a process determined by a field of antagonistic forces,’ in the context of a shifting terrain of conflict full of possibilities in their historicity and contingency. (21) He follows Mario Tronti’s well-known prioritization of worker struggles over capitalist development, arguing that this affirmation pertains not only to chronological time, but also to the quality of the antagonistic relationship between autonomy and subordination that constitutes the ambivalence of the present.

Roggero borrows an orientation from postcolonial critique in order to further articulate the way in which capitalism is in transition today. He puts forward an understanding of ‘post’ as something that does not indicate a radical rupture with the past, nor the end of inequality and oppression, but rather a diffusion at the global level. The paradigms of capitalist social relations continue to be re-articulated, and therefore the problem ‘is to recognize the heterogeneity of capitalism in every historically determined space and time, just as the forms of resistance that continually interrupt and subvert its course.’ (36) In terms of knowledge as it relates to the production process, Roggero argues that it is inseparable from its owners. ‘The new technologies are based, in fact, on the dynamic production and management of knowledge, language, and information, none of which can be completely separated from the subjects of social cooperation and encapsulated in machines at the risk of blocking the very same process of technological development.’ (54) It is precisely this ambivalent situation, in which the productive power of knowledge that is instrumental for capitalist accumulation cannot be entirely appropriated from the material constitution of its subjects, which characterizes the concept of living knowledge.

The production of living knowledge within the continual reconstitution of capitalist social relations opens up a discussion of contemporary class composition and the institution of the common. He follows the classic understanding of class composition, arguing that class does not pre-exist the material conditions of its subjective formation in class struggle. This means that the subjects from whom capital cannot entirely appropriate knowledge come together only through their resistance to the capital relation. Similarly, knowledge itself is not a common, but only ‘becomes common in the production of living labor and in the organization of autonomy from the capital relation.’ (123) As such, Roggero understands the production of subjectivity within contemporary capitalism to be a battlefield on which lines of flight from the crisis are available at the “frontier” of the university. He understands the frontier in a temporal sense, linking up with radical and subversive ideas before they are reduced into the borders of the university.

In order to flesh this out, Roggero turns to an extended discussion of the development of black, race, ethnic, women’s and LGBT studies in the history of US universities. These lines of inquiry were rooted in the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, not as initiatives from within the university. Although these forms of thought were eventually integrated into the university, this integration was not without struggle and the knowledge retains an ambivalence that is not entirely controllable. Roggero labels the type of knowledge production that operates on the frontier of the university ‘self-education,’ and argues that this type of knowledge can be organized and made common. ‘The becoming-institution of self-education projects indicates the capacity to organize autonomy and the resistance of living labor, determining command and collective direction within social cooperation, producing common norms in the destructuring of the university that exists, and breaking with capitalist capture, reappropriating and creating the commonwealth.’ (132)

The Production of Living Knowledge is an exciting and challenging work. It is useful not only for its theoretical developments which bear witness to the continued relevance of postoperaismo, but also as an example of conricerca, or co-research, the wellspring from which the book has developed that I have underplayed thus far. Conricerca is a method of partisan participation in research which poses the question of subjectivity from the beginning. Class consciousness is not thereby something which an external subject must reveal and develop, but rather something in which the researcher, as a producer of knowledge, is already involved in from the beginning. This methodology complicates the existing division between intellectuals and political practice, and it is in this regard that Roggero finds himself truly on the frontier. As theoretical practice, Roggero’s book helpfully articulates that horizontality and the questioning of hierarchy are precisely what is at stake in the organization of autonomous processes from capital, not the starting point for organization. In this way, he is able to avoid the pitfall of fetishizing either a leaderless, radically anti-authoritarian practice or a longing for a leftist Margaret Thatcher. By similarly avoiding the deference to neoliberalism as a conceptual skeleton key, Roggero deftly occupies the ambivalent terrain that makes up our present situation, on which we must take up the struggle against capitalist command.

2 August 2013

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