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'Cognitive Capitalism' and the Rat-Race: How Capital Measures Immaterial Labour in British Universities

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One hundred years ago, Frederick Taylor and the pioneers of scientific management went into battle on US factory-floors. Armed with stopwatches and clipboards, they were fighting a war over measure. A century on and capitalist production has spread far beyond the factory walls and the confines of 'national economies'. Although capitalism increasingly seems to rely on 'cognitive' and 'immaterial' forms of labour and social cooperation, the war over measure continues. Armies of economists, statisticians, management-scientists, information-specialists, accountants and others are engaged in a struggle to connect heterogeneous concrete human activities on the basis of equal quantities of human labour in the abstract – that is, to link work and capitalist value. In this paper, we discuss contemporary capital's attempt to (re)impose the 'law of value' through its measuring of immaterial labour. Using the example of higher education in the UK – a 'frontline' of capitalist development – as our case-study, we explain how measuring takes places on various 'self-similar' levels of social organisation. We suggest that such processes are both diachronic and synchronic: socially-necessary labour-times of 'immaterial doings' are emerging and being driven down at the same time as heterogeneous concrete activities are being made commensurable. Alongside more overt attacks on academic freedom, it is in this way that neoliberalism appears on campus.

Affiliations: 1: University of East London;, Email:; 2: University of Leicester;, Email:


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