Building Up an Institution of the Common
Interview with Gigi Roggero from Edu-factory
“What was once the factory is now the university” states the international Edu-factory collective, which started off as a mailing list of 500 students, activists and researchers worldwide. They argue that in today’s cognitive capitalism, we have experienced the transformation from organising knowledge from above to the capture and expropriation of common knowledge after it is produced. This appropriation and exploitation of knowledge produced in the common opens up for a possibility that lies in the autonomy of knowledge production. The fact that knowledge today is produced in the common also makes it possible for us to re-appropriate it. The Edu-factory’s attempt to create a global autonomous university is a way of reclaiming such common knowledge. Edu-factory writes, “Theoretical practice is always political practice, and political practice is not only theoretical practice”. They claim that there is no production of knowledge that is not political. Theory is always a field of struggle and in times of “cognitive capitalism,” perhaps one of the most important. We met with Gigi Roggero, one of the initiators of Edu-factory at the Labour of the Multitude conference in Warsaw to talk about Edu-factory, recent university and precarious workers struggles, and ideas of autonomous education.
What were the main ideas behind the Edu-factory project when you started in 2006-07?
The main idea was to examine the transformations of the university and conflicts within knowledge production. We immediately assumed a transnational point of view as today, political and theoretical practise cannot be limited to the nation-state. When I talk of theoretical practise I mean something that is immediately within struggles, movements and political practise.
So in practical terms, it all started as an e-mail list, right?
It started as a mailing list but with a couple of innovations. We thought that the old mailing lists of the 1990s had some problems. Our experience was that they usually began with lot of e-mails followed by a scattered discussion where it was difficult to focus on a single topic. These lists produced a lot of chaos and not really productive chaos, and after some time they would very often decline. So when we started our list at the beginning of 2007, we introduced a couple of rules. The first one was a temporal limit. That is to say, we started the first round of discussions in January and ended in March. For three months the list was open and then closed. The second innovation was the organisation of the discussion. We made a schedule of interventions, texts written by different people in the collective. After they were posted on the list all the debates and posts following would focus around them for about a week. This worked very well. We had two rounds of discussions that are partially collected in a book that is out in Italian, English, Spanish and Polish. The two topics of this discussion during the first round were university transformations and conflicts in knowledge production, and for the second round it was oriented around the global educational market and the construction of the institution of the common.
Did you do other things outside of the e-mail list?
I have to say, the Edu-factory is composed of militants, activists, students, researchers – workers and precarious in the university who are immediately militant. We are all involved in different struggles. What we discussed was internal to our concrete political activity – an activity that was not only based on the web, but first of all in concrete spaces. We also organised conferences, meetings and various workshops in Amsterdam, Rome, Australia, UK and the US. Edu-factory was one of the organisers of the Paris meeting on University Struggles Against Austerity last February.
You describe knowledge production today as a central battlefield, could you develop your idea of knowledge production and why it is so central to your analyses?
Something that we have discussed and written about a lot is cognitive capitalism and that labour is becoming more centered around cognitive (mental and linguistic) capacities. By this we mean that knowledge is central to the new forms of labour and capitalist accumulation. It is not only central in social production but also as a means of production. When we talk of cognitive labour we are of course not saying that manual labour is disappearing, what we are saying is that the process of becoming cognitive of labour is a central paradigm that affects the whole class composition. In other words, today you have a process of becoming cognitive for the traditional factory worker too. One cannot understand the functioning of the factory if one does not understand the process of becoming cognitive of labour.
Yes, you also talk about a movement, that capital no longer organises living production of knowledge form above, but is forced to capture it after its produced. Can you talk a little about this transformation?
Under industrial capitalism, social co-operation was mainly organised upstream. You have the factory and the workers that are put in the factory to produce cooperation. In order to assemble a car from different pieces there has to be cooperation between workers, but this cooperation is mainly organised by capitalist entrepreneurs. Now if you look at forms of value production today, there is a social cooperation that is less and less organised by capital, instead increasingly capital has to organise a downstream capture. The corporate figure of the cool hunter is exemplary. In the twenties Henry Ford said, "buy the car that you want, the important thing is that it's a Black Ford T," summarising the capitalist dream to induce needs from above. The cool hunter, on the other hand, acts directly downstream, trying to capture and translate expressions of subjectivity into the language of value. Capital arrives after social co-operation is preformed. Only think of the Internet were Google is the main corporate model. This model doesn’t organise social cooperation from above, but instead continuously tries to add value on to the social cooperation that exists independently from it. I also have to say that when we talk of becoming cognitive of capitalism, as I said before, it doesn’t mean that there is no more classical industrial capitalism, but it means that it also changes. Just as industrial capitalism did not mean that artisanal activities were disappearing, but rather that the new paradigm of capitalist accumulation was the factory and industrial organisation.
How can you see it as a capturing when capitalism already produces, at least in part, the culture and language from which this knowledge comes? Or in other words, how can you say it’s a capture when the culture that produces this knowledge from the beginning is a capitalist culture?
First of all, when I talk of social cooperation and capture I don’t mean that social cooperation is external to capital: in fact, I think that there is no outside. Capital in a classical Marxian way is a social relationship and not something external. Social cooperation is within the capital social relationship, but at the same time there is a process of becoming autonomous of social cooperation. Regarding language, I think it’s a good example of the way capture is functioning. Because when I talk of capture I don’t mean a pure parasitic idea of capital, but I talk of a transformation in its form of organisation. That is to say, capitalist organisation is less and less related to the organisation of social cooperation, and more and more to the organisation of capture. Because of course capture has to be organised. And on the question of language, I think it is a very good one because it’s also a question the struggle needs to consider. How are classical forms of communication possible within struggles today? How can different languages create a common composition? Capital translates different languages into the homogeneity of the language of value. I think that the problem within struggles today is not to reduce heterogeneity to homogeneity, but to translate heterogeneity into a common composition. There are some interesting scholars on the question of translation, a Japanese scholar called Naoki Sakai who developed the distinction between homolingual and heterolingual translations for example. Homolingual translation is a homogenisation of linguistic differences. It is the form through which the capitalist capture works. There is a production of differences within capital, but these differences have to be translated into the homogeneity of the language of value. Heterolingual translation is a way of creating a common language without this reduction to homogeneity. Let's take an example, the encounter of two migrants of different languages in a foreign country: they have to speak in a new language, different from their native languages and from the language of the country in which they are in. That is to say, they have to produce a new common language, one that did not exist before. I think the problem of struggles is the problem of heterolingual translation, that is to say, the translation of heterogeneity into a common composition. The common is not homogeneity, but it is something based on multiplicity and differences.
In your texts you mention that neoliberal theorists today use and promote the idea of the “network” as form of organisation and you take a few examples. How is your network, the network of Edu-factory, different from the networks described by neoliberal scholars?
These neoliberal scholars I have quoted – for example Yochai Benkler who wrote a book called The Wealth of Networks – argue that the classical model of Microsoft based on intellectual property doesn’t work because it blocks social cooperation and the power of productive innovation. The new forms of corporation, Google for example, have to face the problem of what we call the capture of common production. So our problem is, let’s say, a weak idea of the network. That is to say, that the network is immediately a realisation of a new form of horizontal production. But this idea of horizontal production is exactly what capture by capital is based on today. In other words, horizontality is not a starting point but it is what is at stake in autonomous cooperation. Our problem of the network is how to build up a strong idea of the network. In Edu-factory, starting from the differences within struggles, we try to pose these questions: how it is possible to build up a network and a new form of transnational organisation beyond a representational system, and how is it possible to translate differences in a common political space? We didn’t face this only on a theoretical level, but in the examples I mentioned before (the organisation of the Paris meeting, the meeting we are preparing for North American movements, a meeting in India, the process of networking and organising between Europe and Tunisia), where there are not only processes involving Edu-factory but a lot of other networks and organisations. These are examples of exactly how we try to build up a strong idea of the network and the network as a form of organisation.
I read some of the e-mail archive you have online and there was a discussion you had early in 2007 about global English and how academic language could be potentially excluding. I was wondering how you think about this today, especially within your discussions and collective texts?
In a very simple way, I think we have to avoid a double risk. On the one hand, we have to avoid the risk of homogenisation, as I mentioned earlier, homolingual translation of different languages; but on the other hand, I think we also have to avoid the risk of identities of languages. English was imposed as a standard in a historical process. How is it possible to reverse and to break this standard? I think we have to act within and against it. We use English exactly to exceed it, and to create a common space in which we can strive against this homogenisation. And also, we have been involved in other situations (for example of the meeting in Tunis last September-October) where the main languages were Arabic and French. The problem is to think of the struggles against global capitalism as an exaltation of the local, because the identity of the local is only one of the ways in which global capital works.
You talk about autonomous institutions, but are not most of the people involved in Edu-factory also teaching or students in universities and in sense dependent on it?
The idea was to immediately focus on the university as a space of struggle, but at the same time assuming that the production of knowledge is widely spread in the social. There is no outside of knowledge production and there is no outside of the university. We interpret universities as apparatuses of capture and the problem is how to break this capture and build up an institution of the common. How to collectively re-appropriate the university: we face this problem from within.
In recent years we have seen a trend in different forms alternative education initiatives. But how can we differentiate between autonomous education as forms of struggle and counter power or simply places were people are using each other to gain and produce knowledge in order to become better competitors on a cognitive labour market?
The risk of autonomous education and self-education is if they imagine themselves as “happy islands”, a situation where there are the “official” institutions and the “alternative” institutions. We have to break this dialectic between “alternative” and “official”. We have to interpret the goal of autonomous institutions as the access to knowledge for everyone and the autonomous cooperation of living knowledge. If these experiences are limited to create communitarian spaces they are ineffective. The problem is how to imagine autonomous education as institutions of the common. It means a re-appropriation of the social richness that we produce in common, and the destruction of the apparatuses of capture.
There also seems to be a renewed interest in self-organisation within the student and precarious workers’ movement.
Of course, these experiences point out a feeling and desire for the common and to go beyond the dialectic between public and the private. But I have to say that from a strategic point of view, the problem is not the utopian space or the community space, but the construction of the common. All in all, we can say that we have nothing to defend. The goal of contemporary struggles should not be to defend the public university, because public and private are complementary in the process of corporatisation, but rather, these struggles should be immediately situated in the constituent practice of the common.
How do you think these ideas of autonomous institutions today relate to the countercultural and educational critiques of the 1960s? Today there seems to be a renewed interest in the countercultural and educational critique of that era.
I think more or less what I said before, that these ideas are important but sometimes there is a tendency to create marginal spaces. The institution of the common is not at all a marginal space of alternative critics, but its goal is the construction of new social relationships. For example in Italy in ’68, we had so-called “counter classes”. But by the 1980s and 90s, this practice of counter classes started to mean that there are official programs and there are the classes where you can learn what is excluded from the official program. I think this idea does not work because there is a great risk of marginality and ghettoisation. In other words, it risks reducing itself to a demand of citizenship in the existing academia. In fact, I don’t think that the contemporary university excludes: in the university today you can talk of almost whatever you want, because the university itself is a machine of depoliticisation. For example, in the Anglo-Saxon university there is a rising fashion for Deleuze, Althusser, and the so-called “Italian theory” but in a way where it is disconnected from its political roots. I think that without the political roots you risk talking only of abstract categories deprived from material compositions. The concepts of Marx or operaismo are not at all abstract categories, but political tools. If you don't understand the concept as a political tool, you cannot understand the concept itself.
To read more about Edu-factory visit: www.edu-factory.org