Virtue Signaling: Problematizing Creative Labor Within Knowledge Socialism

Dr Benjamin Green, Beijing Normal University, China

Research Highlighted:

Green, B. (2021). Virtue Signaling: Problematizing Creative Labor Within Knowledge Socialism. Postdigital Science and Education.

Beginning in 2018, Beijing Normal University (BNU) Distinguished Professor Michael Peters began a collaborative project that would see a decades-in-the-making theory of cognitive political economy – knowledge socialism – transformed into a philosophy of praxis based on commons-based peer-production (CBPP), collective intelligence, and creative labor. My research identifies and problematizes the virtue signaling of creative academic labor within knowledge socialism as a critical flaw which may serve to further proletarianize and exploit upstart scholars enlisted within this experimental process of teaching, writing, and publishing. Moreover, this research outlines a class of prosocial academic entrepreneur within China higher education (HE) whose commitment to the collective common good is measured by their ability to ensure a professional livelihood. Knowledge socialism represents an attempt by various scholars in the field of philosophy of education to foment a radically open political economy of non-rivalrous knowledge production/consumption that counters the neoliberal paradigm of knowledge capitalism. Specifically, knowledge socialism, as a ‘radically-open’ political economy of knowledge, entails the desire to engender within the scientific community a form of collegiality, which in the vein of Ivan Illich, unlocks the emancipatory potential of collective human thought for the public good. From a Marxist standpoint, the concept of knowledge cultures was developed to represent inclusive communities of inquiry whose creative academic labor constitutes the engine which drives knowledge socialism. Through co(labor)ative writing, editing, and publishing efforts, knowledge socialism aims to foreground knowledge within a sociality which challenges the problematic norms, values and practices of the ‘lone individual scholar’ and the institutions under which it was created. While this theory has been utilized in the past to create co-authored edited volumes, open access research articles, as well as open access online forums and journals, this was the first time that this theory would be tested within a HE classroom setting, consisting wholly of graduate students rather than well-established journal editors, and professors in the field of philosophy of education.

Thus, began the experiment of knowledge socialism at BNU’s Faculty of Education, wherein over the course of several years, the pedagogy of knowledge socialism was developed alongside more practical productive facets towards an alternative political economy of unfettered knowledge. Specifically, throughout this experiment at BNU, several well-met research articles have been published within the auspices of knowledge socialism. For example:

Peters, M. A., Hollings, S., Zhang, M., Quainoo, E. A., Wang, H., Huang, Y., … Green, B. (2021). The changing map of international student mobility. ACCESS: Contemporary Issues in Education, 41(1), 7–28.

Peters, M. A., Oladele, O. M., Green, B., Samilo, A., Lv, H., Amina, L., … Tesar, M. (2020). Education in and for the Belt and Road Initiative. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 52(10), 1040–1063.   

Peters, M. A., Wang, H., Ogunniran, M. O., Huang, Y., Green, B., Chunga, J. O., … Hayes, S. (2020). China’s Internationalized Higher Education During Covid-19: Collective Student Autoethnography. Postdigital Science and Education, 1–21.

It is important to note that these articles were guided by Professor Michael Peters, but overwhelmingly drafted, written, and edited by graduate students (both international and Chinese) from the Faculty of Education. To be sure, the publication of these articles showed quite clearly the positive productive capacity of knowledge socialism. Moreover, these articles provided rich insights into topics like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), HE Internationalization, student mobility, and pandemic education. However, while this collaborative process brought invaluable insights to both those involved as well as readers interested in the aforementioned topics, questions began to arise as to whether knowledge socialism (in its present form) might represent a viable alternative to knowledge capitalism.

With this in mind, my research article outlines several core productive elements of knowledge socialism as required to create a ‘commons’ which contributes to both the public good and the livelihood of commoners. These elements are creative labor, collective intelligence, and commons-based-peer-production (CBPP). Much of the research concerning collective intelligence and CBPP emphasizes the inherent virtuous character of those volunteering their creative labor to collaborative projects. Specifically, many scholars cite Wikipedia as a model of CBPP based in the virtuous volunteerism of cognitive laborers. It is clear why such a model of collective knowledge production might be used to theorize a way out of our contemporary ‘tragedy of the knowledge commons’, wherein knowledge is produced, extracted, and commodified by publishing regimes within institutionalized HE. However, throughout the course of my research it became clear that rather than developing a substantive method of valuation for the creative academic laboring of those contributing to these research projects, knowledge socialism was promoting a form of ‘virtue signaling’ which expected and relied on voluntary, de-valorized ‘virtuous’ labor contributions to the commons. In this way, rather than acknowledge the increasing precarity of contemporary scholars within the academy, knowledge socialism was positioning these students within a mythical, carefree academic class. As a lead on many of these projects, I fielded message after message from students worried about their academic futures, outlining their desire to contribute, while struggling with the idea that their collective efforts would fall outside of the first, second, or third author metrics required to graduate. Throughout the entire process, from enlistment in the project to final publication, these students were overwhelmingly concerned about order of authorship for the purpose of grant funding, faculty positions, scholarships and graduation. Thusly, it became increasingly clear that those who contributed to these research projects represented a class of ‘prosocial academic entrepreneur’ who wished to contribute to the common good while also securing their livelihood in the process. This point also provides further credence to the understanding that students of HE in China, while inhabiting what Rui Yang describes as a Confucian political climate geared towards collective societal development, also inhabit the same performativity requirements of neoliberal institutionalized HE. As a result of this research, those wishing to enlist the creative academic labor of students within China HE, must understand the performativity requirements and inherent precarity of these scholars as they seek to promote an economy of knowledge that both valorizes and supports those laboring towards a revolutionary transition to knowledge socialism.

Researcher Bio

Dr. Benjamin Green is a recent graduate (June 2021) of Beijing Normal University, Faculty of Education, and current Zhi-Xing US-China Leadership Fellow. His recent works have focused on China HE, US-China relations, global governance, digital nationalism, critical cosmopolitanism, and Chinese Internationalism as a contested project of alternative modernity. He can be contacted via email:, Weixin: benbo83.

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