No State, No Nation: a Co-operative Federation


The Student as Producer book I am writing ends with a discussion about the co-operative university and the revolutionary teaching out of which it is derived, not as a new type of independent institution but as a form of political settlement.

The theory and practice of creating a co-operative university has focussed up to this point on the university as an independent institutional form, with its own intrinsic critical dynamic, model of ownership, radical democracy and curriculum content. But the creation of a radical alternative university can only be achieved through a transformation of the social relations of  capitalist production: this is the basic lesson of Student as Producer. This transformation means the co-operative nature of capitalist production should be further enhanced so that workers can take control and ownership over the means of production,  as an association of workers (Winn 2015). This is a logical and historical development but needs to be considered politically and, in this review, geographically as its effects are socialised  beyond the workplace.

This transformation of the practice of co-operation can be considered beyond the institutional form of higher education to include a wider explication of pedagogic space and spatiality (Lefebvre 1991, Neary and Amsler 2012). The university has a strong affiliation with space exemplified by the notion of the campus, originally meaning field, as well as its attachment to specific geographical locations: the University of Bologna, Oxford, Harvard, Seoul National University…etc (Bender 1991 ). If  revolutionary teaching is grounded in the general intellect or general knowledge at the level of society then  revolutionary teaching requires a new form of ‘public sphere outside of the state’  as  ‘a political community’ (Virno 2001), or  political settlement, even, implying a signficant geographical component.

The nation-state  is the dominant geo-political spatial formation (Smith 2010). Since its inception in the 17th century, the nation state has operated not just as a form of violent political sovereignity (Benjamin 1921), but,  fundamentally, as the spatial arrangement by which labour power is organised and managed as a process of capitalist and colonial administration (Holloway and Picciotto 1978, Kay and Mott 1982). The capitalist nation-state is a nodal point in the system of global capitalist social relations, as the ‘political regulation of class antagonism’ which is manifest in different ways across the globe (Bonefeld, Brown and Burnham 1995 25).

Analyzing the capitalist world system is not only an empirical issue, but must pay attention to the methodology  through which that analysis is carried out (Wallerstein 2004 ). Wallerstein offers a unity of the sciences as the methodological framework for the  subversive university,  with profound implications for the organisation of higher education (Wallerstein 1996). Lefebvre supports this scientific unification with a university grounded in a critique of everyday life or subversive knowledge  based on the meta-principle of communist science: which he calls  ‘dialectical anthropology’ (Lefebvre 2003 65), rather than an appeal to philosophical universal principles. In this way, the university is recognised as a form of  social pedagogy which involves ‘self criticism and continuous active scrutiny of the relations between the functional and the structural limits of a self managing entity and society as a whole’ (Lefebvre 1968 87).  

Lefebvre set out plans for an urban space in which such a university might be located in  New Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia (Bitter and Weber 2009). He describes his plans for New Belgrade as  ‘the Capital of a Federal Republic where all the nations that compose it may find, through new modes of appropriation of the space of the city, their own character’ ( 2009 32).

The Federal Republic to which Lefebvre is referring has proved the inspiration for another profound organisational presumption around which the question of pedagogical space might be assembled:  ‘balkanisation’ (Grubacic 2010). Balkanisation is a term that usually has negative connotations as a process of national fragmentation that is detrimental to the whole. But Grubacic provides a  guide  to how the concept of balkanisation might be appropriated as a revolutionary principle, with the motto: ‘no state, no nation: Balkan Federation’  (Grubacic 2010). Writing in the anarchist tradition, inspired by Kropotkin and the principle of mutual aid, Grubacic’s balkanisation is derived from the historical development of  Balkan politics as  ‘an organic, dialogical, shared and participatory activity of the self-governing public ‘ (2010 215), a history that has been denied by what he refers to as ‘ “political balkanophobia”: an elite fear of autonomous spaces’ (2010 210) that might undermine the European nation-state building project.  In a very practical way balkanising leads to a show of ‘concrete support to the projects of mutual aid, mutual solidarity, poly-cultural identity and the politics of freedom’ ( 2010 218). Not then ‘state formation …[but]… state de-formation’ (Grubacic and O’Hearn 2016 17). This regional focus is substantiated by the promotion of labour-managed co-operative enterprises as the organising principle for progressive social development in the former Yugoslavia ( Vanek 1977). Grubacic and O’Hearn refer to these balkanised sites as exilic spaces: ‘those areas of social and economic life where people and groups attempt to escape from capitalist economic processes, whether by territorial escape or by the attempt to build structures that are autonomous of capitalist processes of accumulation and social control’ ( 2016 1-2). They have described these exilic spaces as living at the edges of capitalism. They find examples of exilic spaces in  Zapatistas villages, Cossack communities and Supermaximum Prisons. My own co-research has found examples of what could be referred to as exilic spaces at Mondragon University in the Spanish Basque country, a region with a history of separatist politics (Kashmir 1996,  Bakaikoa et al 2010 ), where members of this co-operative university work on ‘solidarity economics’ projects in the Global South (Neary, Valenzuela-Fuentes and Winn 2017).

Grubacic is aware of the value-form theory on which Student as Producer is based (Grubacic 2016), although value-form theory does not form part of the methodology by which he describes his Balkanised federated model. For Student as Producer exilic space is not  only mutual aid as an empirical political issue but involves a critique of political economy in action focussed on the principle of co-operation. Revolutionary teaching is not then a radical university that is located within an exilic space:  but a methodological principle: dialectical anthropology or communist science, around which an exilic space  might be  organised: no state no nation: a co-operative federation. And so, in this way, revolutionary teaching  becomes much more than the basis for an independent co-operative institution and asserts itself as the organising principle for a new form of political settlement.

Reading Ranciere Symptomatically

Jacques Ranciere might be the epitome of a revolutionary teacher. The book I am writing, Student as Producer: how do revolutionary teachers teach? provides a symptomatic reading of some of Ranciere’s major works to reveal the nature of Ranciere’s revolutionary appeal. A symptomatic reading is a type of revolutionary science, drawing out from  a piece of writing  what is not obvious from a superficial reading and may not even be apparent to the author: a result of their subconscious thinking (Davis 2010); and, in this way, ‘to produce the visible invisible’ (Young 2017) when reading a text. This type of reading was advocated by Louis Althusser in relation to reading Marx. Ranciere was Althusser’s student, before Ranciere denounced him  as an armchair theorist and  an authoritarian teacher, while going on to create his own democratic approach to teaching and social theory (Ranciere 2011).

I offer this symptomatic reading of Ranciere not as a ‘condescending philosophy’ (Davis 2010 14), but as my own contribution to interpreting Marx through  a ‘discourse(s) of struggles’ ( Ranciere 2011 119), as a student, not as a teacher, and as an expression of my own intellectual emancipation.

One reading of Ranciere is as a polemical anti-Marxist. I want to challenge this view by arguing that Ranciere’s most compelling concepts: equality of intelligence, intellectual emancipation, subjectivization, distribution of the sensible, part of the no part,  declassification, democracy and police are based on a method of theorising that has its roots in Marx’s  value-form theory.  Ranciere did, after all, write a paper setting out the basis for Marx’s revolutionary theory of value, which has become a key text for the ongoing reappraisal of Marx’s writings known as ‘ the new reading of Marx’ (O’Kane date). What makes Ranciere’s value-form paper more  fascinating is that it  was originally published in Althusser’s ‘Reading Capital’ (1965) but was removed from subsequent editions.

There is other work that claims Ranciere as a Marxist although not in relation to  value-form theory  (Renault 2014; Lefebvre 2015), as well as interpretations that draw out the significance of work and workers as an underlying theme in Ranciere’s work without any reference to the law of value (Deranty 2012). There is scholarship that recognises the significance of Ranciere’s unpublished paper as a way of understanding the significance of Marx’s value-form theory (Nesbitt 2017;  Chambers 2014) but not in a way that underpins his subsequent theorisations.

Ranciere may have denounced Marx and what he claimed was his derogatory attitude towards the working class, but he acknowledges the explosive power of the identity of opposites: use-value and exchange value: the value-form, which threaten to blow capitalism apart, even if Capital has managed to avoid its own catastrophic destiny up until now (The Philosopher and his Poor 2004).  Ranciere’s work points to a  theory of resistance to Capital as oppositions  conjured out of the value-form  and its most regulatory function: the principle of equivalence on which equality is based.

Ranciere sets out his theory of  equality  in  The Ignorant Schoolmaster: five lessons in intellectual emancipation (1991). Ranciere assumes, following Joseph Jacotot, a French teacher and educational philosopher during the Bourbon Restoration period, that everybody’s intelligence is of the same nature, and, therefore, everybody has the same ability to learn given the will, circumstances and object of study: the thing in common. Ranciere  tells us that Jacotot refers to this capacity as the equality of the intellect. It is the role of the teacher to develop a context in which such learning can take place, so that the intellect of students can be emancipated. This does not mean teachers explaining things to students: teacherly explication is a form of student stultification. The  most radical claim of ‘the ignorant schoolmaster’ is that  teachers  can create a situation for students to learn something the teacher knows nothing about. Ranciere, after Jacotot, refers to this as universal education.

My claim, based on a symptomatic reading of Ranciere, is that  the idea of equality, and the concept of equivalence on which it is based, is  derived from Marx’s value-form theory, where labour (abstract labour) is what all objects (commodities) have in common, and  what is recognised in  the act of exchange: as equivalent amounts of abstract labour. However, in the case of universal education, equivalence is not a form of social regulation, but the method by which that regulation can be resisted, superseding in a dialectical fashion the exchange relation, as a pedagogy of excess (Neary and Hagyard 2010). The pedagogy of excess is when the law of value and its principle of equivalence is turned against itself, as the capacity of labour to resist the law of value through a process of self-valorisation. Self-valorisation puts people and the planet before profit. Self-valorisation includes the production of knowledge about labour’s own predicament as a radical form of political science (Cleaver 2017).

This  emancipation of the intellect is extended by Ranciere beyond teaching and learning as a theory of political society. Emancipation  moves from  new forms of knowing  to new forms of political subjectivity: subjectification and declassification emerge as resistance to the dominant social order expressed by Ranciere’s theory of police (Disagreement 2004). Revolutionary subjects are not already prefigured as sociological types: anti-racists, feminists and workers, in what Ranciere refers to as the distribution of the sensible, distributed by the police as the arbiters of what counts as radical politics; but, rather ‘the part of the no part’: those  who have yet to find a voice and be recognised as an act of political dissensus . Dissensus is a social event at the level of society, even if Ranciere  does privilege  individuals rather than homogenous groups, like the proletariat. Once again, symptomatically, he is following Marx for whom revolution is not merely the triumph of the working class but the coming into being  of the social individual.

Marx conceptualises the social individual in terms of emancipating the productive powers of individuals and, therefore, the productive capacity of society as a whole. He does this specifically in relation to the production of knowledge and science to be appropriated for the benefit of society, by reclaiming what Marx refers to as  ‘the general intellect’ (Grundrisse). The concept of the general intellect bears a close resemblance to Ranciere’s notion of the emancipation of the intellect.

So how does this help us to answer the question ‘how do revolutionary teachers teach?’ Revolutionary teachers can support the wilfulness of their students by setting out an emancipatory circumstance as well as things in common, which might be considered as a form of ‘communism without the communists’ (Ranciere 2010) about which we all have much to learn.