Students, Workers and the Specter of Surplus Value


It’s six in the morning in Delhi, India. The smog sits above the sprawling city as I and some friends take the long auto-rickshaw ride to the industrial belt on the outskirts of the nation’s capital. We left early to help distribute workers’ newspapers to the thousands of workers walking to their morning shifts. As we approach the industrial belt—shielded from the eyes of the city’s increasing and increasingly isolated middle class—the smog gets thicker. Already the most polluted city in the world, the air in the industrial belt is suffocating. It’s no wonder why. Just past where we stand to distribute the papers, an interminable line of factories stretches out into the distance, guarded by bouncers. Many of these factories are where raw materials are fused with human labor to produce products for U.S. multinational capital. Indeed, this setting is where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” initiative is being realized, as the country surpasses China and the U.S. as the number one global destination for foreign direct investment.

The constant stream of workers walking to these factories for hours at a time seems more reminiscent of early 19th century London than it does 2015 in a leading “developing” economy, one in which the Prime Minister tells the country’s dispossessed, “achhe din aane waale hain” (the good days are about to come). As I was distributing papers along with three other students and the publishers of the newspaper, I realized on a visceral level that this was the setting in which the core exploitation to fuel global capitalism was happening. I also began to reflect on my position as a student in relation to these workers. Far from the peaceful green environment of the campus space where I was studying, the industrial belt literally felt like a whole other world. Upon returning to the U.S., I wondered if these two worlds may have a parallel even in the imperial center of the globe.

Switch contexts to Grinnell, Iowa, home of Grinnell College and, despite the College’s efforts to downplay the fact to prospective students, roughly 9,000 rural Iowans. As I was in town distributing leaflets and a workers’ newsletter on a crisp fall evening, I met a man smoking a cigarette outside of a dilapidated house behind a grocery store. After striking up a conversation with him, I quickly found out that he worked at one of two plastics factories in Grinnell. Shortly after meeting me, the worker said in a suspicious and even accusatory tone, “Are you studying here or something?” As a senior, I was already well aware of the stark “town-gown” divide between Grinnell and Grinnell College, but it is always a clear reminder of this physical and social partition to hear it implied so strongly after just meeting a “townie.”

Before getting ready for his 12-hour graveyard shift on a Friday night at the factory, the worker continued, “You wanna know what it’s like out here? It sucks out here.” The causes of his cynicism are readily visible throughout the town. When entering Grinnell’s Davis Elementary School, the first thing you see is a poster bearing the message, “Homeless? It can happen to anyone.” The statistics explain why this sign is necessary: over 40% of students at Davis qualify for free or reduced lunch. Contrast this with the economic prosperity of the College, whose $1.8 billion endowment, one of the top 10 per pupil endowments in the country, posted a 20.4% return in 2014.

Indeed, the difference in material well-being between the College and town is striking in its magnitude, as is the College’s indifference towards doing anything about it. Much could be written on this topic alone, but here I want to focus in on one particular dimension of the “town-gown” contradiction, one I pondered both while standing in the industrial belt of Delhi and during my conversation with the man getting ready for his shift at the plastics factory in Grinnell: the relation of the student to the worker.

This factory worker’s visible distaste for the fact that I was studying at the College led me to take a fresh look at some questions I had begun to consider back in Delhi: Are students workers? Is the social difference between students and workers found in the kind labor they do, cultural background, or is it a question of value production for capital? Why does there appear to be a disconnect between student and worker movements in both the U.S. and abroad?

These questions also stem from other concrete realities on the ground, realities that are desperately in need of theorizing: why was Batay Ouvriye, an autonomous workers’ organization in Haiti, compelled to put students in a separate organization after the students had tried organizing alongside workers? Why do so many leftist students in Delhi, India’s progressive Jawaharlal Nehru University seem disinterested in finding a way to actively support rampant labor unrest in the National Capital Region’s own industrial belt? Why have student-led campaigns for fossil fuel divestment in the U.S. been unable to gain traction outside of a handful of small institutions?

To answer these kinds of questions, we must move beyond a populist portrayal of capitalism, a portrayal that, to use contemporary examples from the Occupy Movement and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, identifies “the 1%” or “the billionaire class” and collapses the rest of society into one class comprised of everyone who is not a capitalist. It is not enough to simply say that we are all dominated by capitalism and, therefore, should unite to rein it in or stop it. Rather, if we actually want to end capitalism, our theory must be in service of uncovering the mechanisms through which capital reproduces itself and the class or classes capable of halting this reproduction. To this end, I will offer an analysis of surplus value—the driving force behind capitalism’s reproduction—and explain why this analysis matters to students and student participation in class struggle. I will then apply this analysis to concrete struggles like the ones mentioned above and suggest some tentative answers to my biggest political question: What is the role of the student militant in relation to the working class?

Surplus Value: The Engine of the Capitalist Machine

The production of surplus value is the defining feature of capitalism as a mode of production that distinguishes it from historical modes of production, namely feudalism. Under feudalism, the appropriation of surplus is empirically visible: the lord is entitled to a certain portion of the product of the peasant’s labor on the land at harvest time. In other words, exploitation of labor is executed outside the production process as an ex post facto claim on the surplus product of the peasant’s agricultural labor. In contrast, under capitalism, the appropriation of surplus occurs inside the production process. Instead of having a portion of her surplus product retroactively appropriated by the owning class, the worker is exploited during the production process itself.

For example, if a worker is paid $100 for eight hours of work, but produces goods worth $100 in just two hours, then the rest of that time—six hours—she is not paid for her work. During those remaining six hours, the worker produces $300 of goods. That amount is surplus value. By way of his ownership of the means of production, the capitalist appropriates the surplus value by also claiming ownership over the newly produced commodities. This surplus value, embodied in these physical commodities, is realized as profit when they are sold, and a portion is reinvested as capital to allow the industry to expand. This extraction of surplus value is not merely a quantitative measure—the $300—but, rather, is made possible by a qualitative social relation of domination between capital and labor.

Because the extraction of surplus value occurs within the time-disciplined production process under capitalism, the point of production itself becomes politicized. For example, in February of this year in the same industrial belt where I was passing out newspapers, a garment worker at a Richa Global factory was prevented from entering the factory—an action which indicated the termination of his contract—just for arriving ten minutes late to his work shift. After he refused to leave without due compensation, he was beaten to hospitalization by factory bouncers. When ten minutes of tardiness is equal to ten minutes of lost surplus value extraction, the stakes are potentially fatal.

This beating was followed by worker agitation in the industrial belt. While this agitation, which is one of many in (removed the word “the”) Delhi’s industrial belts, was clearly a direct response to an attack on an individual worker, its roots lie in the daily struggle of all the factory workers against the hyper-exploitation of surplus value and the inhumanity that this entails. Pitiful wages, contract labor, and deadly working conditions are the norm in the industrial area. These practices and conditions are driven not by capitalists’ “greed” or a hatred of the poor, though individual capitalists may be greedy or hate the poor. Rather, they are in service of keeping the motor of capital production—surplus value—well oiled with labor-power amenable to as much exploitation as possible. Surplus value is the engine of the capitalist machine.

Productive and Unproductive Labor

A failure to grasp the process of surplus value production leads a majority of theorists on the left to only tell part of the story about how capitalism reproduces itself and little about how to politically intervene in this reproduction process. Even for the formidable theorists of the independent socialist magazine, Monthly Review, the conception of the working class is rendered mechanical and vague due to a failure to appropriate the concept of surplus value. For example, in his influential 1974 book, Labor and Monopoly Capital, Harry Braverman points to six “occupational categories” that comprise “the unmistakably working-class population.” He bases these categories not on the distinction between “productive” and “unproductive” labor that was pivotal in Marx’s definition of the working class, but rather on the socioeconomic status of laborers. As such, anyone in the “new middle class” can slide down the class spectrum into the working class as their labor is “degraded.”

While Braverman’s work is engaged in the important task of theorizing the declining material conditions of the “new middle class” that accompanied capital’s offensive in the early 1970s, he fails to frame his analysis in terms of the central question we must ask when crafting revolutionary theory: How is capitalism reproduced and how can this reproduction be stopped? By defining the working class principally in terms of socioeconomic status, Braverman strips class analysis of its qualitative social dimension, the dimension we must attend to if we wish to struggle not simply for the redistribution of already exploited surplus value, but, rather, for the overturning of the capitalist mode of production itself. In other words, description of a sliding spectrum of socioeconomic conditions does not make a class analysis. This approach also misleads us politically: due to the “degradation of labor,” we are given the impression that there is an ever-growing working class and, thus, all the more reason to expect immanent uprisings against capital culminating in revolution. But, looking back, this degradation, which has objectively continued, has not fostered uprisings of any sort. Rather, working class strength is at an historical low with its putative indicator of resurgence in the U.S., the Fight for 15 movement, controlled by collaborationist unions and NGOs that use workers as pawns.

What explains this paradox of an ostensibly numerically increasing working class paired with an objectively weaker workers’ movement? Clearly, the answer lies not in a quantitative measure of the mere number of workers in a given social formation, nor does the “collective action problem” faced by workers explain the specific historical and social crux of this paradox. Rather, we must turn to Marx’s distinction between “productive” and “unproductive” labor in the Grundrisse to help us explain this seemingly unexplainable concrete reality. Well before the rise of the “new middle class,” or, more precisely what Nicos Poulantzas calls the “new petite bourgeois,” Marx made a distinction between those laborers who produce surplus value and those who do not. This is not a moral distinction, nor one that is not simply about the “occupational category” of the laborer at hand. Rather, it pertains to which laborers produce new value for capital and are, therefore, in direct antagonism to it. In his own words:

Is it not crazy, asks e.g. (or at least something similar) Mr Senior, that the piano maker is a productive worker, but not the piano player, although obviously the piano would be absurd without the piano player? But this is exactly the case. The piano maker reproduces capital; the pianist only exchanges his labour for revenue.

As Marx goes on to explain, it does not matter “how useful” the labor of the pianist might be (as a musician myself, I would consider it to be wonderfully useful, even essential, for society); if it is not labor that “directly augments capital,” it is not productive labor. Indeed, even in an age of monopoly-finance capital in which value appears to be detached from any input of labor-power and short-term profit can be made from the sale of just about anything, surplus value still must be embodied in physical commodities. The crisis-prone nature of the economy under the dominance of finance capital—itself a response to the stagnation in the material economy—is evidence of the absence of new value production behind this toxic form of accumulation. As Dani Wadada Nabudere, reflecting on the meltdown of 2007-08, succinctly writes in The Crash of International Finance-Capital and its Implications for the Third World:

The [financial] ‘wealth’ has, without the production of real material goods, turned itself  into a form of ‘toxic wealth’ which can only pollute what remains of the ‘real’ economy, unless the real producers of these material goods find a new means by which they can bury this toxic economy on a new material basis.

From this distinction between productive and unproductive labor, and the related distinction between industrial and finance capital, we come to a definition of the working class as those laborers who are involved in the process of physical commodity production; in other words, those laborers who produce surplus value for capital. This distinction, rather than a theoretical abstraction, is often quite clear to those on the streets. For example, the same plastics worker who was wary of the fact that I was a student, upon hearing that I was interested in speaking with workers, immediately asked me, “What kind of workers do you want to talk to—factory workers?” His comment demonstrates that making distinctions between different kinds of labor is not an arcane, academic activity, but rather an intuitive practice to pursue under a contemporary capitalism in which different kinds of labor fulfill different roles in its reproduction.

From this definition of the working class, it becomes clear why workers’ capacity is so weak in the U.S.: while there are an increasing number of highly dominated, low-wage laborers in the workforce, the phenomenon described by Braverman’s “degradation of labor” thesis, because they are involved in the circulation rather than production of capital, they are incapable, on their own, of challenging the fundamental reproductive contradiction of capitalism: surplus value production. For instance, I recently spoke with a retail worker who said of himself and his employees, “We’re at the last stage of a product reaching the consumer, so we can’t do much to impact the economy.” Indeed, he realized intuitively that, while he had to sell his services to survive, he still did not have the ability to actually impact capitalist commodity production, let alone provide a material alternative to it. Indeed, until garment workers in countries like Haiti and Bangladesh, who are involved in producing the commodities sold in retail stores, are able to challenge capital at the point of production, unproductive workers’ struggles will only be able to weaken capital but not completely overcome it.

Even though the role of production has remained relatively stable as a percentage of GDP in the U.S., productive work, to the tune of five million manufacturing jobs, has increasingly shifted away from the U.S between 1980 and 2004. By outsourcing production to the global periphery, capital has been able to more tightly control it by repeatedly relocating it to regions with lower wages and more repressive conditions. Indeed, only by distinguishing productive labor from labor in general can we explain how imperialism is materially reproduced in the 21st century.

Let me be clear: none of this argument is meant to discourage the organization and struggle of unproductive laborers; quite the contrary. In general, the material conditions of these fundamental laborers are nearly indistinguishable from those of productive laborers and their domination by capital is comparably severe. Furthermore, in today’s globalized capitalism, unproductive laborers often occupy strategic positions in supply chains. All this argument suggests is that, without the class strength of productive workers, any movement against capital will hit a wall due to its inability to engage the only class—the working class—with the capacity to not only weaken capital, but also to provide an alternative to it by cutting surplus value production at its root: material production.  

Do Students Produce Surplus Value?

With this theoretical framework on surplus value in place—one that is heretical for a left that has largely abandoned working class struggle in a shift to targeting capitalism’s effects—we arrive at the question of students. It is clear that the aforementioned garment worker in India, nearly beaten to death for his ten-minute tardiness, produces surplus value and that, by withholding his labor-power, the factory owner’s ability to reproduce himself as a capitalist would be negatively impacted. But what about students? For instance, can’t the student-administration contradiction in the university space be understood as representing the same antagonism that was present between the worker and capitalist in Delhi’s industrial belt? Moreover, by withholding her labor, might the student impact capital in the same way as this garment worker?

I contend that the student—unless engaged in surplus value producing work outside of his capacity as a student—does not produce surplus value and is, thus, not a member of the working class. This holds true even of students from working class backgrounds. To understand why, we must ask, “Why do students go to college?” While you’ll get many answers to this question, most are along the lines of getting “a better job,” code for a job within the new petite bourgeoisie. In other words, the goal is precisely not to end up in the working class.

Indeed, I was recently speaking with a senior at another college who mentioned that almost everyone she knew was striving for employment in finance in one way or another. In fact, finance companies are now even hiring students in the humanities and soft social sciences due to their tendency to be “self-starters.” If not finance, NGO employment has become a desirable option for those graduates who follow the ideal “getting paid to do good,” but end up undermining working class struggle in the process. One graduate recently told me that he aspired to “meaningful” employment in the NGO sector following college, but now, after five years working in it, feels alienated and thinks his salary would be better utilized if given to the state to fund social programs. Even though the economy drives some students back into the working class after college, their aspirations while studying not to become workers have political consequences concerning the relationship of students to workers’ struggles.

Here the concept of the petite bourgeoisie—the non-autonomous class that neither produces nor extracts surplus value—is particularly relevant. In French, “petite” not only connotes “small,” but also something small that will become big. Indeed, while not itself the bourgeoisie, the petite bourgeoisie has a tendency to aspire to become the “big” bourgeoisie. Students, by virtue of their training in dispositions, desires, and skills that will allow them to rise above the sphere of commodity-producing labor, strive not to place themselves in a position to end capital accumulation at its productive source, but, if not to become capitalists, at least to find a satisfactory middle-ground between the fundamentally antagonistic classes of the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

At this point, several objections may arise. First, what do we make of current reforms in education that seek to produce workers rather than comfortable allies of capital in the petite bourgeoisie? First, we need to ask which kind of workers these colleges and universities are trying to produce. Despite dubious empirical claims that colleges are beginning to train students for productive work, there is clear evidence that productive labor and college generally do not go together. For example, the Economic Policy Institute notes that, in the U.S. “the non-college share in manufacturing was 26.9 percent greater than in all industries.” Similarly, only 20 percent of farmworkers have attended even some college, this itself an inflated figure since it includes both farmworkers and supervisors. In light of the fact that less than forty percent of working-age Americans hold college degrees, it is not surprising that this minority does not flock to productive labor. Indeed, those who overemphasize the role of colleges in producing workers invoke Braverman’s empirically insightful but theoretically unhelpful “degradation of labor” thesis, arguing, for example, that university work is “increasingly cast as piecework” and, by implication, has been degraded to an “occupational category” of the working class.

This brings us to a second objection: what about students who are also research scholars and, thus, who produce scholarly “products” for the university? Aren’t they workers, too? Again, this question comes back to the issue of productive versus unproductive laborer. While research scholars may produce surpluses, not all surplus production is surplus value production. For example, peasants under feudalism produce surplus, but this surplus does not take the form of surplus value. Similarly, ecosystems under certain conditions produce a surplus of deer, but this is a biological surplus, not a surplus of value. This is, again, not to say that research scholars do not do useful work. For example, I think that the research I completed this past summer, which was funded by my college, was “useful,” but I recognize that, just because my labor is useful, it does not automatically mean that it is surplus value-producing labor that would, then, make me a part of the working class.

Third, there is the argument that, because many universities are for-profit either overtly or covertly, they are extracting surplus value from students. Raising tuition costs, debt peonage, exorbitant textbook costs, and so on are, of course, all evidence of the advances of capitalist class struggle under monopoly-finance capital. However, to say that these phenomena are equivalent to the extraction of surplus value from the worker is wishful thinking at best and intellectual vanguardism at worst. For example, just because faculty at a university enable students to get a “better job” in the future—adding value to future labor-power just like workers’ labor-power adds value to commodities, as the argument goes—it does not follow that students have this added value “exploited” by administrators who charge them exorbitant tuition fees in the present. Using this logic, anything can “add value” to the products that this potential worker might produce at some undefined point in the future: her friends, entertainment, therapy, and so on. And since the majority of graduates will not actually produce surplus value in their future jobs, the argument is largely immaterial.

This brings me to a final and crucial point: Without productive labor, colleges and universities would have no means of materially reproducing themselves. An analysis of the fossil fuel divestment campaign in U.S. colleges and universities demonstrates this truth. Let’s look at Harvard, the world’s wealthiest university. It seems reasonable that the University would be able to sacrifice a portion of returns on its whopping $36.4 billion endowment after 72% of students voted in favor of divesting from fossil fuels. However, Harvard President Drew Faust, speaking on behalf of the University’s Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, responded that such a divestment would not be “warranted or wise.” She continued, revealing an economic savvy rarely found on the left:

Given our pervasive dependence on these [fossil fuel] companies for the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances, it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.

Indeed, unlike the many leftists who equate “knowledge production” with material production, Faust is clear that the latter provides the very material conditions for the former’s reproduction. The student-led fossil fuel divestment campaign has proved so difficult to actualize on a scale that would significantly impact oil, gas, and coal companies precisely because of the stubborn nature of productive labor, in this case that employed to drill for fossil fuels. And students—due to their petite bourgeoisie class status—are unable to do anything about this on their own. Even students at Harvard, the highest player in higher education, cannot escape this reality.

Students in Chile encountered their limitations in a similar manner during the massive student mobilizations of 2011-13. On their Struggling to Win speaking tour in the U.S., a group of Chilean students noted that, despite the mobilizations of over one hundred thousand students, they did not have the leverage to achieve their demands for increased democratization and affordability of education. Only when they began to engage workers—particularly dockworkers—in this struggle were they able to win their demand prohibiting state support of for-profit educational institutions. This example illustrates that, even if we want to, students do not have the ability to make major inroads against capital on our own.

The Role of the Student Militant

In light of the social limitations of students due to our class position, how can we best fit into the struggle for socialism/communism? To start, we must realize that, on our own, we cannot provide an alternative to capitalism. Certainly students can concoct theoretical alternatives to capitalism in our papers and class discussions, but, when it comes to pushing the fundamental contradiction of capitalism—capital versus labor—in an effort to overcome it through its own inherent antagonism, we must turn to the working class. Only the working class, due to its central position in the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, is capable of providing an alternative to capitalism—a proletarian alternative.

Once we acknowledge this objective reality, how can we complement workers’ struggle? For one, we must find a way to engage with workers’ movements without opportunistically converting them into a means for our own interests, as is the risk in contexts like the student movement in Chile. As I mentioned earlier, we can observe instances in which students simply do not have an interest in workers’ struggle, which is one extreme, as well as instances in which their involvement has the effect of eroding its autonomous character. While student militants can and should work to build workers’ organizations and movements, when the rubber hits the road, workers themselves must take control of and drive these struggles. Once a struggle is in workers’ hands, we can follow their leadership when developing ways to strategically assist the struggle. This assistance could potentially manifest as demonstrations outside of a workplace in response to attacks by the bosses on workers, aid in legal battles if these are necessary to sustain class struggle, written articles on the details of working conditions or the state of particular struggles, or whatever the need of the concrete reality at hand may be.

I should be clear that this position of working class autonomy and students’ role in relation to it is not equivalent to a conception of “allyship.” Students must figure out how to straddle the line—always reacting to changing concrete conditions—between lack of involvement and over-involvement in workers’ struggles not out of deference to “worker experience” but for purely material, strategic reasons. As one railroad worker, who has previously been involved in labor militancy at a tire factory, recently told me while we were discussing the topic of workers and students, “Workers may espouse bad politics and still have a materialist innate notion of solidarity against the employers.” Indeed, workers have the unique capacity to struggle as a class even if their politics are ideologically unsound or even reactionary. While reactionary politics—such as those relating to race, gender, disability, nationality, and sexuality—must be struggled against no matter who espouses them, workers are able to engage in this struggle materialistically in practical relation to an existing class struggle. This stands in contrast with students, who are taught to hash out debates in the idealist space of the academy in which there is no material interest at stake.

Through an understanding of surplus value and productive and unproductive labor, we as students can better use our social position to aid the struggle against capitalism led by the working class. Instead of merely lamenting occasions like the beating of a worker at the Richa Global factory in India as a labor and human rights violation, we need to ask why beatings like this occur and what we can do as students to address their causes while simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls of under- and over-involvement in workers’ struggles. In short, we can slowly but surely demonstrate to workers that we are not, as the plastics factory worker told me, just “studying here or something,” but also committed to the advancement of working class struggle.

Furthermore, while we need militants in all social spheres, including within the university, there is the option for students to not only become proletarian militants within higher education, but to materially rupture with the petite bourgeoisie and become part of the working class itself. While all student militants, even if not part of the proletariat proper, must constantly strive to become proletarian revolutionaries by stripping themselves of petite bourgeois ideology, actively becoming part of the fundamental contradiction between the capitalist class and the working class—becoming proletarian through becoming part of the proletariat—can be a particularly advantageous way to push this contradiction forward.

When I was standing distributing leaflets in the industrial belt of Delhi, I was breathing in the stifling smog along with the thousands of workers streaming by on their way to the factory. This smog is symptomatic of the already proceeding environmental catastrophe whose weight sits heavily on the shoulders of students and workers alike. Likewise, the very same class war that has been waged with increasing force against these workers since the rise of monopoly-finance capital has simultaneously impacted me as a student in the form of exponentially increasing tuition costs and the inevitability of student debt. Indeed, in many ways, the two worlds of the worker and the student come closer together today than in any previous time in history. While this proximity forms the material basis for solidarity between different segments of the masses, such as students and workers, there still remains the unavoidable political question of which class is capable of not just weakening but actually overturning and providing an alternative to capitalism. Only through the aforementioned strategic shifts for student militants can we work to fight not only in our interests as students dominated by capitalism, but also in the interests of the working class, the only class with the capacity to liberate all of humanity and the planet from capitalism!

This article originally appeared on INIP.

Vincent Kelley is a writer and researcher currently based in London who can be reached at