Is the University a Factory?

By Susan Kelly, 10 October 2013
Image: Gerhard Seyfried, ‘Welcome to the Machine’, 1977

Reviewing Gerald Raunig’s recent book on the industrialisation of knowledge and creativity, Susan Kelly questions how accurate the metaphor of ‘factory’, with its associated figure of the wage-labourer, really is in these individualising and precarious times



Published by Semiotext(e) just a year after the original German edition, Gerald Raunig’s Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity reads as a very contemporary study of the recent uprisings and social movements mostly in Europe and the US, and their ramifications for the fields of culture and education. Drawing on Deleuzian and post-workerist political and philosophical frameworks, Raunig extends his analysis of art, education and post-Fordism first set out in the republicart and transversal web journals, as well as in book publications such as Thousand Machines (2010) and Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century (2007).


Using the notion of modulation, and Kafka’s story ‘Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk’ (1924), Raunig articulates a subtle and open account of recent occupations of universities and city squares, as well as transformations in the sphere of culture and contemporary rhetorics of creativity. Modulation, in his analysis, is a process through which regimes of both discipline and control work together to cumulatively standardise, hierarchise, reform and deform institutions, subjectivities and their relations. Raunig insists that these Foucauldian and Deleuzian terms should not be understood as successive, but rather as operating simultaneously in this phase of neoliberalism. In the university, for example, imposed disciplinary regimes around debt, migration and surveillance co-exist with intensified processes of willing self-governance, adaptation and subservience. Through reproposing the notion of the (education) factory and (culture) industry, Raunig aims to both describe contemporary modulations in these spheres, and to offer lines of flight, desertion and recomposition of institutions and social processes. Throughout, Raunig’s analysis moves between subtle and perhaps familiar calls for reappropriations of time, industriousness, the factory and so on; and more forceful analyses of the deep levels of control, deformation and indeed dependency we operate under today, calling at one point for institutions to enact an ‘evental break’ with this subservience, a total breach of the neoliberal time regime, a whole new way of living. This more strident analysis that goes beyond affirmation of the ambivalence, excess and overspills of contemporary neoliberal forms of governance, comes closer to articulating the intensity of our current condition and what we need to urgently work on to bring about any significant transformation in these spheres.


In reading Raunig’s book I was perhaps inevitably forced into a reckoning and a recounting of my own experiences of this same recent period of change in London. This experience of university occupations, temporary squats, waves of demonstrations, local borough politics, smaller micropolitical groups, and the Occupy movement as it was incarnated at St. Paul’s, was incredibly inspiring for many of us in this city. But it also painfully laid bare the depths and complexity of our entanglement – and complicity – in both the macro and micropolitical regimes of neoliberalism, our failure to make any real gains in these years as well as the intense battles we face if we are to get any traction in our struggles. In other words, I approach Raunig’s book not only through a theoretical reading, but also through a common grappling with these experiences of struggle and transformations.


As Once was the Factory, Now the University’


In the first half of the book, Raunig develops a careful analysis of the contemporary university, drawing on Gerhard Seyfried’s 1970s image of the university as machine which was heavily re-circulated at the start of the anti-Bologna campaigns from 2007 onward.1 This proposition of the university as a factory has also been interrogated in the recent forums of edu-factory and Uni-Nomade in order to explore how the university has become a key site of conflict and social struggle in recent years.2 Raunig is careful to point out that the disciplinary image of the factory suggested in Seyfried’s image cannot grasp the complexity of what constitutes the contemporary modulations of economy, control and knowledge production in the university. He is also careful to differentiate his proposal of the factory of knowledge from what he calls the potentially universalising notion of the social factory as it has been debated since the 1970s. Avoiding the use of the factory as metaphor, Raunig nevertheless argues that the university retains three crucial qualities that also made the factory a key site of social struggle in previous generations. He argues that the qualities of condensation, assembly and re-territorialisation make the university a ‘becoming factory’ of new economic and social assemblages today. He argues for the specific resonance and possibilities embedded in these qualities in the context of our increasingly precarious and dispersed social life. The university as factory offers, in his view, a concentration and assembly of bodies and knowledge that have the potential to re-territorialise and valorise other forms of labour, life and resistance.


While there may be an argument for seeing the contemporary British university as a paradigmatic site of struggle today, this sense of the institution as a site of assembly and concentration is becoming increasingly remote. Faced with mounting debt and exorbitant housing costs, most students I have worked with in London hold down one or more part-time jobs or increasingly take on full-time jobs on different shift patterns while studying. They rush off after class to work, and make rational economic decisions on their percentage of attendance to technically ‘get through’ their degree and simultaneously keep a roof over their head. An increasing number whose families live within commuting distance never move out, dashing to get the last train home, leaving only a handful of students in the pub for post-seminar social life, debates, scheming and arguments. For others still, student life is taken up with both part-time work and a succession of unpaid internships in cultural institutions, fashion houses, PR firms, media organisations and so on, in the hope that this ‘experience’ will translate into paid work on graduation. While we may lament the shift from university as a protected time in life where experiments in thought, knowledge and other ways of living can take place, to a period of study that is utterly instrumentalised for the job that comes after and makes good the debt, the reality in many universities today is that even this sequencing of life phases no longer holds true. For many arts and humanities graduates, the time of university and of work completely coincide. Often, the minimum wage service sector job held during the student period simply becomes more full-time upon graduation, or the student internship leads to yet more internships and service work on graduation. Perhaps proposing the university as factory in this context could do more to bring in an analysis of the working and studying patterns of these students of the new debt regime, where the worlds of learning and labour (both paid and unpaid) are intertwined like never before. And perhaps proposing the university as factory could look more closely at what is learned in this intertwining, what pedagogy of work and what forms of subjectivation are set in place there? It becomes clear either way that while our need for temporalities and sites of concentration and assembly as a condition of revolt is ever more crucial, such qualities are increasingly under attack in the contemporary British university.


Raunig’s proposition of the university as factory does, however, bring a particular focus to struggles over education, and moves us toward a more material analysis. Such a focus, like Raunig’s examination of the term ‘Industry’ in the cultural field, cuts through a lot of the surprisingly persistent myths of independence, autonomy, freedom and so on, that actually work to prop up neoliberal universities and cultural institutions today. Working from Adorno and Horkheimer through to Paolo Virno’s analysis of the cultural industry as paradigm of post-Fordist production, Raunig comments on the cultural sector’s ongoing fantasy of independence and repugnance at talk of industry in a context where the neoliberal state seeks to entirely eliminate all public cultural funding and promote what he calls temporary, flexible ‘project-based institutions’ reliant entirely on entrepreneurial activities, private and foundation funding. It is clear that holding on to such anachronistic notions of independence masks what Raunig describes as the creation of the cultural sector’s utter dependency on free labour, self-exploitation, self-enterprise, and I would add, transnational corporate funding and image laundering. The term dependency is very useful in this context, as it moves beyond a discourse of helpless complicity and complexity, and instead draws attention to the real economic dependence such institutions and indeed individual artists and cultural workers have on undemocratic, privatised and highly questionable economic models and funding regimes today. In analysing conditions through dependence we come closer to explaining the self-censorship Raunig points to in many cultural institutions, their increasingly controlled PR machines and their imperative to either avoid or radically separate all critical ‘content production’ from broader institutional critique and struggle. In other words, looking at contemporary culture and its institutions through dynamics of dependence, might bring us closer to both the ethical and economic stakes at play in the cultural sectors continued fantasies of autonomy, and to the stakes involved in their silence.


There is a risk however, in using notions of the factory and industry in this attempt to re-describe and re-imagine conflicts in education and culture right now. Raunig raises this briefly when he asks if the emergence of the notion of factory in debates around education might simply be an enchantment with a powerful metaphor. I would ask if the notion of the factory might also block our imagination of what else these sites and struggles might be? Does tying current struggles back into the framework of classic industrial conflict foreclose more than it enables? This use of the notion of the factory is reminiscent of the problem of the normative or regulatory figure of the ‘wage labourer’ in contemporary debates around precarity and free labour. Michael Denning for instance has argued in an important essay entitled ‘Wageless Life’, that analysis of political economy that always starts with an industrial norm and the figure of the wage labourer has real difficulty in accounting for the reality of those without wages, or what he describes as the ‘wageless base of subsistence labour’.3 He argues that our political analysis would look very different if we didn’t take the wage labourer as a regulatory figure, as some kind of universal base. Feminism has of course long understood this problem of modelling political struggle around the norms of industrial conflict. Silvia Federici amongst others has analysed women’s ‘discontinuous relationship to waged work’ and critiqued the male-centric conception of work and social struggle.4 In the context of the Wages for Housework struggle in the 1970s – where the factory worker was hegemonic and championed as the privileged revolutionary subject, and the factory as the privileged revolutionary site – feminists understood that their identification with the waged worker was partly strategic.5 Struggles around the wage were understood by Federici and others through a kind of double move, or what Marina Vishmidt calls ‘a dialectic of affirmation and negation’.6 First comes a social affirmation of housework as labour that produces value. This affirmation presents itself as the demand for wages for unpaid reproductive labour. Following on from this, it becomes clear that this demand is incompatible with capitalism and patriarchy; it proposes a category of value so expanded as to become an immediately political, and not only monetary. The initial demand therefore ‘engenders a precondition for the political imperative to negate wage-labour and capital.’7


One of the important questions campaigns against free labour and precarity in culture share with these earlier debates around feminism and work is how we demand a living wage that allows us to live with dignity, without reducing our work, our passions, desires, capacities to create, to care and make, to the alienated form of the wage relation? How can we organise our struggles in such a way that operates both within and against the existing economy and political imaginary? And in doing so, how can we draw on important histories whilst simultaneously instituting other imaginaries, other figures? Apart from isolating important qualities of the factory that can be found in some universities today, and proposing less familiar definitions of the notion of the factory and industriousness to help us think this through, Raunig doesn’t offer an account of how strategic or other uses of these terms might foreclose or enable an intensification of our struggles at this moment in time. For there is no doubt that how we describe our current conditions affects how we understand our collectivity, our work, and our agency.



The Subservient Subject


In a couple of fascinating chapters that refer to Michel Foucault’s Courage of Truth (1984), Raunig analyses of the notion of parrhesia as ethical truth speech: a form of speech that promotes both inquiry and self-inquiry, and focuses on modes and relations of subjectivation. Drawing on the tradition of the cynics, Raunig gestures towards political practice as manifestation of truth tied to experimentation with forms of existence. Against simplified notions of the disciplinary factory and reductionist critiques of culture industry as the mere commercialisation of art, he recalls Foucault’s speculations on art as a practice that is capable of giving new form to existence. Bringing together Foucault and the tradition of the cynics, Raunig calls for a focus on this ethico-aesthetic aspect of forming life; the political project of continuous and renewed work on giving form to life, of living together. In identifying the ethical charge of the 15M movement in Spain, the importance of the space of assembly in the university, and the radical inclusivity and polyvocality of the various Occupy movement general assemblies, Raunig highlights some of these experiments already taking place in the social movements, and how this work on the production of subjectivity and collectivity has become central to our struggles. It is good to see this focus emerge in the book, but it might have been good to hear more about how such gestures and insights can be conceptualised, organised and enacted in the spaces and temporalities of the severe neoliberal assault the spaces in which we live and work are undergoing right now.


In the UK at least, there is no longer any guarantee of a social wage or social insurance to support our work, squatting has been made illegal, anything public that was left after New Labour has been sold off and marketised, there is an epic housing crisis that receives little public attention, and resisting bodies are ruthlessly and systematically criminalised. We have lost almost every battle so far. The university and spaces of culture are in no position to offer their traditional protection, consolation or open time for reflection and creation, and discrete collectives of intellectuals and artists reflecting on these processes offer little or no traction in these struggles, quickly becoming either marginalised or thematised. Caught in dynamics of dependence, much of our energy is taken up with survival and conjuring new conditions into least-worst scenarios, often reproducing the worst forms of accommodation and self-governance in the process. These self-defeating contradictions can be seen nowhere more clearly than the current absence of resistance to the REF, ‘Research Excellence Framework’, in British Universities. Academics in the university, although highly unionised and almost unanimously and publicly against the current REF, its discriminations and destructiveness, cannot or will not organise even a partial boycott. The growing legions of the forced self-employed become more deeply embedded in a similar subjective schizophrenia – where as entrepreneurs of themselves, they ‘are at the same time exploited and interested in exploitation.’8 Subjectivity is produced in contemporary spheres of work, culture and education in deeply paradoxical and problematic coils of contradiction: in attempting to escape current regimes of austerity, precarity and exploitation, individualisation and reinforcement of our conditions of dependence become more deeply entrenched. This struggle on the terrain of subjectivity, this ethico-aesthetic task of living and forming lives together feels harder, more immutable and intractable than ever.


Working with the ideas, forms and materialities of resistance on this terrain is incredibly difficult. Yet, as our experience of these new waves of activism and occupation testify, the necessity of the slow, collective work of composing new spaces, temporalities, relations and economies must be grasped. I don’t think it is enough right now to call our governance under current conditions a kind of machinic subservience (neither voluntary nor enforced), nor can we assume that our desiring machines will somehow ‘compose another industry’. Concurring instead with Raunig’s call elsewhere for an evental break, a complete breach of the current regime of time and living, we must find ways to sever these systems and simultaneously build alternative practices and economies through which to live and practice otherwise. This would require the careful construction of spaces and commons that are sustainable, that take on the longer term, the conflicts between users, and the challenges of mutual aid and other forms of material support. It is clear that we have to build more powerful, self-sustaining social compositions through slow everyday practices, repetition and consistency. Many of these efforts are underway in the UK and elsewhere.


Silvia Federici puts this challenge another way. Rather than building towards events, demonstrations and temporary actions which present themselves as the peak of our struggles, she calls for a focus on the ways in which we reproduce our struggles, our movements and ourselves today. She says that we need to put this analysis and practice of social reproduction at the centre of our work.9 In the afterword to Raunig’s book, Antonio Negri states that without a place to rest, it is impossible to revolt. It is precisely these spaces that are disappearing today, and that need our time and attention. Raunig’s book gives us a really useful account and set of frameworks for thinking about where we have arrived in the last five years. In its more strident analysis and its focus on the modulations of subjectivation, institutions and work we can begin to map key terrains of struggle today.




Gerald Raunig, Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity, (trans.) Aileen Derieg, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2013. Afterward Antonio Negri




See cover of the first edition of Wolf Wagner, Uni-Angst und Uni-Bluff, Berlin: Rotbuch 1977.

2 See for example edufactory manifesto:

3 Michael Denning, ‘Wageless Life’, New Left Review 66, Nov-Dec 2010. See:

4 Silvia Federici, ‘Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint’, Variant 37, Spring/Summer 2010, pp.23-25.

5 For discussion, see Marina Vishmidt: ‘Human Capital or Toxic Asset: After the Wage’, 2010 from website: Caring Labour, An Archive, [accessed July 2011].

6 See Camille Barbagallo & Nicholas Beuret ‘Starting From the Social Wage’, in The Commoner: special issue, ‘Care Work and the Commons’, Issue 15, Winter 2012 [accessed January 2012], and Marina Vishmidt, ibid.

7 Marina Vishmidt, ibid.

8 Grasping the Political in the Event, Interview with Maruizio Lazzarato, INFLeXions No.3 – Micropolitics: Exploring Ethico-Aesthetics, October 2009.

9 Silvia Federici, ‘Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint’, Variant 37, Spring/Summer 2010, pp.23-25.