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Capitalist production can by no means content itself with the quantity of disposable labour power which the natural increase of population yields. It requires for its free play an industrial reserve army independent of these natural limits. – Marx, Capital, Volume 1.

The other day, following a various discussions in Twitter, I posted:

Now, I realized quite quickly that these each of these phrases is compressed enough to require unpacking unpacking on its own, so I today I just want to tackle the idea of the university as a “job sponge”, which is the piece I’ve been carrying around with me the longest. This simplification of the initial idea, however, is still difficult to figure out how to frame. Should I start with “credential creep” or “tuition as surplus profit”, both of which are interesting aspects of this problem. There are many different ways to come at the idea of the university as intentionally keeping people out of the work-force. In the end, as always, it was best to go all the way back to Marx for a way to think through this idea, so I have decided to focus these notes on the idea of precarity and the reserve army of labour. Others have written on precarity and exploitation, and to them I am indebted.

In Chapter 25 of Capital, Volume One, Marx talks about the “industrial reserve army”, that is, the mass of unemployed people who are produced by capitalism and kept in reserve to compensate for fluctuations in the proportion of constant and variable capital in the economy (briefly, constant capital refers to non-labour components of production, and variable capital to labour). Marx refers to this proportion as “the organic composition of capital” Since capitalism is always in flux, always in a position of constantly reappearing disequilibrium, the organic composition of capital is also always in flux; the needs of industry for labour are always changing. In order to deal with this changing requirement for labour efficiently, capital must always have a supply of unemployed labour waiting to put to work, and somewhere for the unemployed to be “parked” when the need for labour diminishes. In the 19th century, when Marx was writing, there were ample “labour sinks” or “employment sponges”, as anyone who has read Dickens can attest. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge lets the cat out of the bag, so to speak:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?”

“Plenty of prisons…”

“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“Both very busy, sir…”

“Those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

At the time that Dickens was writing, of course, universities accepted only the sons of the bourgeoisie, i.e., those who were wealthy enough not to have to work themselves (euphemistically called “independently wealthy”, to hide the fact that their wealth was in fact dependent on the exploitation of labour). The University at this time cannot be seen as a job sponge, because those who attended University were not workers; had they not been at University, they should have been just as idle.

This situation changed after the First World War, when returning soldiers, often working class, were admitted to university. This corresponded to a change in the position of women in the universities as well. For example, women were allowed to attend lectures at Oxford, but not to matriculate, since 1870. In 1920, a new University statute granted women “full membership” of the university. These changes opened universities up to more diverse populations than simply the sons of the upper and middle classes, a move which has always been understood by bourgeois ideology as a “democratization” of the university, and thus as a social positive.

During and after the Second World War, and into the long boom, productivity and thus the need for labour remained high. This is the classic period of the university as democratic opportunity, the period when more and more families were able to send their children (often for the first time in history) to get an education. During this period, the “organic composition of capital” gradually changed, and I would argue that the increasing enrollments at universities from the 1960s to the present are due not simply to the increased wealth and leisure of average citizens, who can now afford both the tuition and the lack of income provided by an unemployed student; not simply to this, but also to the fact that production has been on the decline since at least the early 1970s. As fewer and fewer jobs require fewer and fewer workers, as capitalism moves production to parts of the world where labour is cheap, and as the rise in standard of living in the West forced the closure of such institutions as the workhouse, it fell to the universities to become one of two primary job sinks in Western society (the other being the system of mass incarceration in place today).

Which brings me to the question of precarity. Part-time work, zero-hour contracts, short- and limited-term “fluid” labour, have all reached new heights in the last five to ten years. The University has become a mechanism for the efficient management of labour supply. Not only is it able to keep more and more people out of the workforce for longer and longer periods (which is where “credential inflation” comes in), but it is in fact able to manage oversupply in fields where this is required by the economic system.

The oversupply of librarians is discussed a lot, but I want to offer a perspective that connects precarity oversupply to the managerial mechanism of the university. Librarians have historically been a privileged class of labour: we have historically had permanent employment, good pay, good benefits. These are all things that the current phase of capitalism needs to abolish, in a futile attempt to increase the rate of profit (“the return on investment”) that, again in Marxist terms, is constantly declining. Oversupply of librarians is not an accident, but an exigency of the capitalist system as it attempts to dismantle what little privilege and power librarians have among the working class. The same is true of academics. And it is the university that, while it keeps a reserve of unemployed people out of the workforce and unemployment lines in most sectors, floods specific sectors (like librarianship) with workers who have no choice but to accept precarious employment in order to put pressure on employers to gradually erode the working conditions of all librarians. This is the classic function of the reserve army of labour as described by Marx in Capital.

The overwork of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of the reserve, whilst conversely the greater pressure that the latter by its competition exerts on the former, forces these to submit to overwork and to subjugation under the dictates of capital. The condemnation of one part of the working class to enforced idleness by the overwork of the other part, and the converse, becomes a means of enriching the individual capitalists, and accelerates at the same time the production of the industrial reserve army on a scale corresponding with the advance of social accumulation.” (Capital, vol 1, p. 658).

The mechanism of managing labour supply is not explicit or forced upon university departments or library schools. It is managed through the economic logic of capitalism itself. In order to maintain its position (indeed, often its existence) within the university, a department must continue to increase enrollment, partly for the tuition, partly for the portion of budgets disbursed by university administration and the state, and partly, as I have suggested, due to an ideological position that sees always-increasing enrollment as equivalent to increased education and opportunity. Thus the cultural logic of capitalism uses every mechanism at its service to accomplish its end, which in this case is the efficient and effective management of labour supply under the guise of democratization and “uplifting the whole people” (the “promise” of the University of Alberta.

What about this self-understanding of universities? What of their “vision” and “mission” statements? What about all the people who send their children to university for an education and increased opportunity? The first two questions can be easily dealt with. The image of the university as an institution of financial disinterest, whose only concern is the search for knowledge and truth, has never been true. The truth is always dialectical, and it is a mistake to suggest that any human institution is entirely one thing or another, and that its position within the structure of human relationships does not change - along with that structure - over time. As for the final question, this simply shows that universities, like everything else, do not operated in a vacuum, that the ideology and “cultural logic” of capitalism is present in the totality of how we see, understand, and think about the world and our position in it. The only way to resist the power of this total ideology is, as per Jameson’s exhortation in The Political Unconscious, to “always historicize!”


The statement about scholarships for soldiers appearing after WWI came from a misreading (or rather a misremembering) of Robert Graves’ memoir Goodbye to All That. After the war, Graves went to Oxford as what we would now call a “mature student”. It turns out that he had simply deferred his university career until after the war; he would likely have attended anyway. However, he did not pay full tuition - he was a awarded a £60 “exhibition” (a kind of scholarship) to attend. Graves writes,

I had just finished with Charterhouse and gone up to Harlech, when England declared war on Germany. A day or two later I decided to enlist. In the first place, though the papers predicted only a very short war - over by Christmas at the outside - I hoped that it might last long enough to delay my going to Oxford in October, which I dreaded. (Goodbye to All That, Penguin Classics, p. 60).

The subsidizing of soldiers’ tuition can probably best be dated to the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act - known as the GI Bill - of 1944, that is, to end of World War 2 and the beginning of the long boom.


Sam Popowich

Discovery Systems Librarian, University of Alberta

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