Reflections on Life (or, Four Days) at a Chinese University: Education, Use and Exchange Value, and Capitalism

I’ve been reflecting on university life in China, having now been here almost a month, and having a job at a university nearly as long (though the work hours are considerably less–I’ve only done four days work… So take the rest of what I have to say with a pinch of uninformed salt, perhaps).

It’s intriguing to think about life in China — specifically, life at a university — because, while my thoughts may be coloured by the fact of my long term unemployment when I was back home (i.e. in excess of a year) and feeling keenly aware of the uselessness of my degree — not as an exception, but as part of the rule of university life in the UK — the situation for graduates in China (and I say this on the basis of no real research) feels qualitatively different. Which is another way of saying, the expectation is that the degree will help you achieve something, be it an arts degree or a science or technology degree. You have, within China’s ongoing expansion, somewhere you will be needed.

Of course, I haven’t even begun to comment on the extraordinarily terrifying intensity, impersonality, and the more than likely psychologically damaging nature of education in China — it is that questionable, with its 14 hour school days and the like. Yet, it is, given the time period this mass education is taking, at least in broad terms, a social need the Chinese government has taken upon itself to provide and direct (however, absolutely and rightly, questionable the humaneness of the means are).

With these observations of life and education in both the UK and China in mind, I find the analysis David Harvey provides in the linked video fascinating:

The terms of his Marxian analysis of capital I find most relevant here are: use value, exchange value, and the money form.

In my experience, the West, when it comes to university education, almost certainly has these value fully confused. Use value has been subordinated to exchange value; and so we see exorbitant fees, increasing bureaucratisation of the university system, the commodification of degrees relevant to industry, and the waste of education in the arts and humanities. Not to mention the ever-increasing threat of MOOCs, as the potential total mechanisation of the teaching experience aims to remove significant human contact from teaching and study itself. Streamlining degree-production is viewed as paramount, and more money can be made when there is but administrative staff, of course!

China has, at least on the university front, as I see it, the forms of value arranged as Harvey imagines they should be. Use value appears to dominate proceedings. Exchange value has been subordinated to the social good the use value might create.  Increasing the capability and proficiency of the population is vital to achieving something significant, and China is doing it.

Yet, it probably is no cynical leap to admit that exchange value may, ultimately, be the telos undergirding the education process — or, rather, some weird monster it might yet release — that has yet to fully assume or become the grounding logic of the university structure. Could China, as the bizarre communist-cum-capitalist amalgam that it is, come upon, in the not too distant future, a tipping point where the value forms are inverted in a manner we see in Western nations? Perhaps.

Suffice it to say, on an affective level, China feels like a country going somewhere; and this is interesting to experience, in comparison to the dreadful, abyssal nature of university education in the West, marked as it is by a capitalistic nihilism that has fully commodified education.