Up and down on student fees

For some time, Aaron Porter’s “dithering” was the bane of students’ life. Here in the Jeremy Bentham room, University College London, his lateness to come out in support of peaceful occupations wound activists up to the point of hair loss. His tweet explaining a U-turn, now supporting such occupations, was met with near jubilation, though it was not without cautious reservation. Now it turns out this reservation was correct; he has changed his mind back, allowing Judy Friedberg to wonder whether we can expect another makeover next week.

The contentious issue surrounds whether an individual student is legally covered by the NUS, and since direct action by students is the order of the day to see demands met, in an environment where it seems voices are not being heard, the flip flopping by the union is not just annoying, but dangerous. The question remains: should Aaron Porter face a Vote of No Confidence in his presidency over his handling of NUS support for the national student walk-outs?

The highest order of our student representation is back to dithering, but all is not lost today; in addition to the petition against fee rises by 104 failed LibDem candidates for parliamentary seats, Jennifer Willott, MP for Cardiff Central, has resigned from her party over the issue. Her page on They Work For You mentions that her priorities in parliament were local health services, tuition and top-up fees, and council tax. She’s not alone in the party who campaigned on a similar platform, this could be the necessary event that could arouse further resignations and more vocal rebels inside the party.

While government splits take real traction, our student representatives forget whose side they’re on – with further leadership pettifoggerywe take one step forward, and two back.

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Another day in occupied UCL

Another busy day lies ahead for the students and activists occupying the Jeremy Bentham room in the University College London. Following on from plans to leaflet central London to reach wider audiences and hold meetings with security staff to achieve mutual agreements, a press release has just finished with Channel 4, CNN, Radio 1 and many others in attendance.

News that the NUS have “u-turned” on their official position towards occupations takes precedence during the meeting with the press, in addition to the planned march on Tuesday by the students, which the media have taken huge interest in.

There are plenty of articles focusing on the dithering of Aaron Porter, and his late in the day decision to support, in his words, “all peaceful student occupations. We need to keep up the fight! Visiting @UCLOccupation tomorrow.” The national campaign against fees and cuts reminds its readers that the occupation is one such example of peaceful occupation, while Libcom have noted that Porter’s apology fits his agenda. Luna 17 mock him for his umming and ahhing, though the Whitechapel Anarchist Group go all out and all call him a “wanker”.

The Science based nutrition blog informs its readers that the Browne report does not consider the whole picture, looking only at how to fund universities now, and not considering what universities should be – institutions of learning and not necessarily extensions of work experience.

The UCL Occupation has a new website live called UCL Occupation which will stream the days events, host blog entries, show lectures and other occurrences that take place during the occupation of the room.

The digital economy and the age old problem of immaterial labor

The digital economy, and it’s main drivers in the knowledge industry, have opened up some rather unorthodox questions for economists who theorise the value of an individual’s labor. However they are not new questions; Karl Marx himself differentiated a person’s abstract from concrete labor in order to extrapolate what he called the “provision of time for the production of value regardless of the useful qualities of the product”.

From this perspective it almost looks as though Marx anticipated the difficulty dealing with abstract labor in the knowledge and digital economy, although for some, the opposite is the case. Andre Gorz, in his book Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-based Society proposes that Marx’ labor theory of value is made obsolete by what he calls impossibility of “calibrating all performance parameters”.

Economists John Haltiwanger and Ron S. Jarmin (PDF file) note that the rapid growth of e-commerce has prompted U.S. statistical agencies to find ways of “adequately measuring the changes brought on by the IT revolution”. But on the subject of measuring labor value nothing has quite advanced measuring individual performance through observing final products – which as economic theorists from Marx to Maurizio Lazzarato (French sociologist well known for his work on immaterial labor) realise paints only a partial picture.

The digital economy, and the knowledge worker, have increased the form of labor often called immaterial labor, which also throws open interesting questions for labor theorists. Advocates of the strand of Marxism called Autonomism – whose main figurehead is the well-known theorist Antonio Negri – had many things to say about immaterial labor. Tiziana Terranova in her paper entitled Free Labor: Producing culture for the digital economy noted that Italian Autonomists, particularly Lazzarato – mentioned above – viewed immaterial labor as two things: the informational content of the commodity itself, which is to say the labor involving cybernetics and computer control, and the cultural content of the commodity which involves activities not often considered labor, such as fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms and public opinion.

As these things are seldom considered labor, the term knowledge worker is a contested sociological category. For some, knowledge is the product, while the worker continues standard class relations. Andre Gorz held the opinion that the digital class struggle shifts from exploitation in the production process, to exploitation of the product (knowledge) itself. Even the Canadian business executive Don Tapscott, in his book The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril In The Age of Networked Intelligence (1997), opines that the brain acts, today, as a means of production – however he is less inclined to admit how far those means become alienated from the producer in the digital economy.

With the intense commodification of everyday internet life, the digital economy is the ideal means to bring about a digital Fordism – where a reduction in remunerated labor time (geeks and internet whizzes create programmes, applications and website platforms that companies hone in to invest and make marketable) is matched by an abundance of goods and mass consumption (many social networking tools were first created for close friends to use, out of free labor, that was eventually sold for a price to large corporations – no doubt the creators were rewarded well, but it was surely not linked to their labor value, or on how much revenue the product would eventually bring in).

Twitter, Facebook, MySpace are just some of the success stories, but the internet is host to hours and hours of free labor. Furthermore, work in the digital economy necessitates labor which is not evaluated according to usual measurements of labor. Though, much like how abstract labor was not immeasurable in Marx’ day, neither is immaterial digital labor immeasurable in ours.

Activities such as writing, reading, mailing lists, websites and online marketing may not be what Marx was talking about when he theorised upon abstract labor, but certainly there are parallels; in both abstract and immaterial labor, it is time which must be measured to understand a commodity’s value, “regardless of the useful qualities of the product”.