By George Caffentzis, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Southern Maine (Portland, Maine, USA), and co-founder of the Midnight Notes Collective

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when s.he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (S.he must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after s.he has climbed up it.)
-Ludwig Wittgenstein in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.54, 1921

Forty+ years ago

More than forty years ago, I wrote an essay entitled “Throwing Away the Ladder: The Universities in the Crisis.” It was published in the inaugural issue of a journal titled zerowork [1]. My essay ended with the following paragraphs:

However, what makes it easy for capital to impose and, if stopped, re-impose schoolwork is that it is unwaged work. Its unwaged character gives it an appearance of personal choice and its refusal an equally personal even “psychological” symptom. So, ironically, though students consider themselves, at times, the most advanced part of the working class they still belong to the ranks of unwaged workers. This unwaged status has profound consequences for the student movement and the class struggle at this moment. First, because they are unwaged workers students can be cheaply used as workers outside schools and universities to reduce wage levels. Second, by being unwaged Capital can restructure the schools and increase intensity and productivity requirements at little cost; thus ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) is making a come back on the university campuses because the Armed-Forces are paying $100 a month for trainees; and this is just a more obvious example of the possibilities of dividing the student movement for a pittance.

The present political problem of the student movement is not that of a student-worker alliance and so of finding a “link” with the working class, simply because students are workers. Nor is it that of defending the public university as the place for “socialist” education and “unalienated, integrated” work, for the content of the class struggle is the struggle against work for wealth. Rather it must confront the capitalist strategy of control in the university crisis which is predicated on the wagelessness of students. Students can only attack their wageless status through a demand of wages for schoolwork. Such an autonomous demand directly counters capital's plans for it can halt capital's use of students against other workers and also make it difficult to divide students against each other. Capital has used wageless school work as a ladder to success, i.e., to successful exploitation, it is time we threw it away[2].

In this essay I will sketch out what happened to the struggle against wageless schoolwork and the strategy of “throwing away the ladder” in the US. The ladder metaphor brings together the notion of a career ladder and the notion of a theoretical system that proves useful at the beginning of an investigation but then reveals itself to be nonsensical with the knowledge gained in the investigation.

1970-1975. The Refusal of Imperial War Work

I start with the great student strike against the expansion of the Vietnam War on May 1970 that is often remembered as the time of the massacre of students at Kent State and Jackson State by state forces. But what is often forgotten is the massive character of the strike against the war and the use of the universities as war-making machines. As Kirkpatrick Sale wrote demographically about that strike:

More than half the colleges and universities in the country (1350) were ultimately touched by protest demonstrations, involving nearly 60% of the student population—some 4,350,000 people—in every kind of institution in every state of the Union...altogether more than 1800 people were arrested between May 1 and May 15[3].

Clearly, capital and the state had lost control of what the war in Vietnam and economic research in the 1960’s showed to be the importance of war work in the universities. “But how was control and productivity to be restored (and enhanced) in such a vital sector of the capitalist division of labor,” the generals and politicians asked? The path of repression was used initially as in the university massacres in Kent State and Jackson State. But it was a futile effort leading to more demonstrations and even more student war work refusal. Capital and its state planners needed something indirect but at the same time more effective.

1975-2008. The Price Counter-Revolution and the Student Loan Debt Crisis

The answer was found in the old capitalist categories: price and debt. A major counter-revolution was installed by capital and its state characterized by the commodification of academic knowledge that aimed to have students to pay for their education. Education at universities became a commodity, and a very expensive one at that! In the last three decades its average price increased 1,100%, (i.e., 11 times). Consider a concrete example of this increase of the price of academic knowledge as calculated by Strike Debt: “in 1976, a student at the University of California paid only $646 in annual fees, by 2012 the bill had reached $13,181”[4].

Once such a high purchase price was attached onto academic knowledge, debt became inevitable for a student in a population whose average wage has barely increased (in “real” terms) since 1973. And what a debt! It was more than a $1.5 trillion in the US in 2018. The total student loan debt is much more than the total credit card debt of the entire population in the US that in 2017 equaled $1 trillion.

In other words, capital and the state put a price on academic education, but they still are treating student’s schoolwork (that expands the pool of academic knowledge and trains much of the student population) to be valueless! This has led to a paradoxical situation: students have ended in debt in order to buy their own academic work instead of being paid for the work they do for capital in expanding academic knowledge and training future employees. What a fraudulent deal.

What is happening in response?

The mass movements against the commodification of academic education have recently been taking place outside the US. They have been partly inspired by the knowledge of what has happened in the US with the privatization of state universities and the explosion of student loan debt since the 1970s.

For example, in Chile beginning in 2011 students have launched demonstrations and strikes involving hundreds of thousands of students to protest the government’s plan to stop financing the universities and turn to a debt-based method after privatizing the universities while in Quebec a year later 300,000 students went on a prolonged strike that shut down the university system in Quebec and gained mass support for their demand that there be no new tuition fee hikes.

But we must not allow capital and the state to unjustly both commodify academic education and to de-commodify students’ labor power, which is what has happened in the US since the 1970s. The path to ending this injustice is not through more austerity, but actually to fight for the value of the schoolwork as a commodity.

How is “wages for schoolwork” a “ladder demand”?

More than forty years ago I used the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ladder metaphor to claim that some demands can be used to transcend themselves like “Wages for Schoolwork”. In fact, most demands are quite finite and are not capable of being used to transcend themselves; if anything, some demands like neo-liberal ones (e.g., “the more competition among students the better”) can be used to decrease students’ power to refuse their work and develop alternative forms of life and knowledge.

My political bet (40+ years ago and now) is that the discourse of knowledge and schoolwork as commodities is not about whether schoolwork is in actuality and for eternity a commodity. It is meant to be a ladder to go beyond capitalist knowledge, but only as long as you do not forget to throw the ladder away once you have reached a higher stage. The ascription of the concept of commodity to knowledge and student labor power can be useful political ladders, but only to climb up, not to make tourism and to scurry “home” to a lower level at the first sign of trouble.

  1. Zerowork Collective 1975, zerowork 1. Brooklyn, NY. ↩︎

  2. George Caffentzis 1975. “Throwing Away the Ladder: The Universities in the Crisis,” zerowork 1, p.141. ↩︎

  3. Ibid. p.134. ↩︎

  4. Strike Debt 2014. The Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual. Oakland, CA and Brooklyn, NY: PM Press and Common Notions respectively, p.67. The numerical estimates are in nominal dollar terms. ↩︎

Cet article a été publié dans le numéro de l'hiver 2019 du CUTE Magazine. Pour te tenir informé.e sur la lutte pour la pleine reconnaissance du travail étudiant, pour en discuter ou pour y contribuer, tu peux nous contacter via la page CUTE Campagne sur le travail étudiant.