Capitalism vs. education: Why our free-market obsession is wrecking the future

Market-based education reform has become a mainstay of American politics — and it's a disaster waiting to happen

Topics: Education, Michelle Rhee, Michael Bloomberg, Karl Marx, David Blacker, Education Reform, Charter schools, Capitalism, Editor's Picks, , ,

Capitalism vs. education: Why our free-market obsession is wrecking the futureMichelle Rhee, Karl Marx, Michael Bloomberg (Credit: Reuters/Hyungwon Kang/Wikimedia/Jonathan Ernst/Salon)

The 2014 State of the Union address was billed as the speech in which President Obama would finally reveal himself as the progressive champion we’d been promised. In the weeks prior, senior administration officials leaked word that the president would use his platform to declare income inequality the “defining challenge of our time,” a claim he’d first made two years prior, in a highly touted speech in Osawatomie, Kansas. Then, in early February, news came that the phrase “income inequality” had been scrapped from subsequent drafts, replaced by an emphasis on “ladders of opportunity.”

In Osawatomie, the president decried runaway inequality as a threat to the legitimacy of American democracy. In the State of the Union, he paid lip service to the divergent fortunes of “those at the top” and of average wage earners, before transitioning into boilerplate calls for improving education and cutting taxes on domestic manufacturers. As the “ladders” metaphor suggests, the speech framed the crisis facing the vaunted middle class as one of economic mobility, rather than inequality. The word “inequality” was spoken only three times, “opportunity,” thirteen.

Even in Osawatomie, after describing in bracing detail how automation and globalization devalued American labor, producing an economy where weak demand is propped up by credit card debt, the president transitioned from diagnosis to prescription. Not with a call for robust income redistribution, or a proposal for aggressive government hiring, but by declaring, “We need to meet the moment… It starts by making education a national mission.”



The point here is less to criticize the Obama administration’s timidity than to illustrate the incredible onus our politics places on education. We have an economy in which 46.5 million Americans live in poverty, the real unemployment rate is above 12 percent, and our 400 wealthiest citizens enjoy as much wealth as the entire bottom half of the population. But a political system designed for gridlock, the grossly disproportionate influence of the rich, and Americans’ ideological aversion to class politics conspire to make it politically inadvisable for a Democratic president to even speak the words “income inequality” before a national audience. Absent the political will to explore redistributive structural reforms, we’re left with “ladders of opportunity,” and a vision of economic salvation through higher test scores.

Writing in Salon last month, Matt Bruenig illustrated the inadequacy of education as a remedy for inequality by looking at the market poverty rate in Finland, a nation whose students’ math and science proficiency is among the highest in the world. Were education reform in the United States shaped by liberal utopian principles instead of corporate ones, Finland would be its model. The Finns’ education system is radically egalitarian, with free college and no private schools. Standardized testing is limited, and teachers enjoy significant pedagogical freedom. Yet the only thing keeping Finland’s market poverty rate from exceeding that of the United States is a redistributive system financed by a tax level twice as high as our own.

In his new book, “The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame,” philosophy of education professor David Blacker takes Bruenig’s pessimism several steps further. In Blacker’s vision, the economy’s dysfunction renders systemic improvements in education not merely inadequate, but impossible. He argues that the form and quality of public education is so dependent on macroeconomic forces that education reform is “at best a mirage that diverts oppositional energies.” To Blacker, it’s no coincidence that universal public education became a reality in the Western world at the same time that industrialization created the demand for an expansive, educated workforce.

Now, as automation and globalization renders whole swaths of the American labor force useless to capital, Blacker sees the economic system transitioning from a mode of exploitation to one of “elimination.” From the perspective of capital, an ever-increasing portion of the population is no longer seen as a resource to be cultivated, but as a risk to be contained. He sees this “eliminationist” logic driving disinvestment from public higher education, impatience with student speech and activism, and the charter movement’s push toward school privatization.

His book advises activists to adopt an attitude of fatalism. In his narrative, hope is found in the fact that even neoliberal capitalism is helplessly constrained by a system larger than itself, namely that of the environment. The task for the left then, is to prepare, psychologically and experimentally, for inevitable collapse.

Salon spoke recently with Blacker about his new book, and the problem with America’s approach to education and inequality. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You write that education reform is “at best a mirage that diverts oppositional energies.” Why do you believe education reform is a poor target for activists, and where do you believe oppositional energy should be directed?

The primary target of my critique was large-scale educational reform, the systemic movement. The goals of which, my heart is with: unionization, desegregation, inclusion. But I think my conception of fatalism is that the institution of education is so deeply, structurally tied to a certain trajectory of capitalism that it’s not amenable to structural reforms. So that’s where my pessimism comes from. I think that that kind of mainstream liberal activism, at best, has the effect of softening blows that are almost inevitably coming.

There’s a little bit of nuance in experiments like the Waldorf Schools, places like Summerhills in England, the free schooling movement and so on. I don’t mean to tar those efforts with the same brush, because I see those as little oppositional islands of truly alternative practices. But I wouldn’t be enthusiastic about Waldorf Schools on the assumption that we can make the whole primary education system in the United States Waldorfian. I think that’s delusional. On the other hand, I find those experiments very valuable and well worth everybody’s efforts. I think there will be great value in having those smaller-scale experiments around, as potential models in a post-crisis or post-catastrophic situation. They’re for the hereafter.

Your book is titled “The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame.” Can you explain what you believe the neoliberal endgame is, and how it relates to the controversial Marxist notion of “the tendency of the rate of profit to fall?”

Well, basically, I think the way the economy has developed, productivity having been increased and augmented largely through technological development, including automation, has brought about what I call in the book “eliminationism.” I think we find that because of those productivity increases, fewer and fewer workers are actually needed. Human labor is simply less and less part of the equation.

Now, after the economic crisis of 2008, when I looked around and tried to find what seemed to be the best explanation for what had happened, I thought Marx’s argument of “The tendency of the rate of profit to fall” was a really interesting, important argument. It’s very contentious. Mainstream economists don’t accept it at all, most Marxists don’t accept it. But still in its basic outlines, as long as you don’t look at it in an overly constrained way, I think it’s a really important part of what’s going on.

Capitalist firms don’t exist just to make stuff. They exist to make a profit. Marx’s Labor Theory of Value assumes that profit comes from the difference between what workers are paid and the value they actually produce. That’s the profit the capitalist takes and either spends or reinvests. So that’s labor value, that’s why we get paid.

Given the assumption of the labor theory of value, the profit-producing sliver of enterprises is the human labor part of those enterprises, and as technological advances in production take place, that human labor element starts to get replaced on a large scale. And in many respects, from the point of view of an individual firm, that’s not a big problem. In fact, they can reap gigantic profits in the short term with such developments. But in the long run, in the ensemble, we look at entire sectors of the economy, and for example see how costs lower and you start not making money any more from producing, say, DVD players. When we look at the economy as a whole, as it becomes more and more automated, and the production process comes to rely less and less on that human labor component, by hypothesis, the profitability will decrease.

I don’t think it necessarily always shows up very well in terms of official measures of corporate profitability. Those profits, I think, can be propped up by any number of means. A lot of my analysis is trying to explain those means. Marx called them counter forces. To me, it’s about this gravitational force pulling down profitability, that gives rise to all these counter forces, and these counter forces can be even more powerful than the original force they were opposing. They can win for a long time. Globalization, financialization, the debt machine, this ensemble of counter forces that together constitute “Neoliberalism.” And corporate profits can look great under those conditions, but I always feel like there’s an analogy with gravity:

So someone says, well, wait a minute, that airplane over there, it just took off, so where’s your theory of gravity now, smarty pants? The plane took off. It defeated gravity, so therefore there’s no gravity. Well, no. It just means the plane has sufficient counter forces to overcome that gravity. But any explanation of flight trajectory and the energy requirements of the airplane are going to involve gravity and understanding how it works.

And if you look at various charts of profitiability since World War II, there’s jagged curves and there’s ups and downs, but on the whole, it seems like profits from actually making stuff, competitive capitalism, and that old style of making stuff and selling stuff for a profit? Profits in those areas seem to be down. The big money is in finance. It’s not in making and selling stuff.

Given that picture, I think we’re entering a new phase in terms of labor needs.

Back in the 19th century, when capitalism was gearing up with factory-style production, we had what I call the “all hands on deck” phase of capitalism: Okay, immigrants, get ’em in here. Gather up the world’s people for the factories. The more people whose labor you can exploit, the more profits you can squeeze out of them, the more capital you can accrue. And that’s the era precisely, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence, that’s the era where we experienced the birth of universal public education.

What decade do you tie that to?

In the United States, it was the 19th century. Universal primary education was complete in this country around the middle of the 19th century, and then universal secondary came in around the turn of the 20th century. And interestingly enough, the beginning of universal public education came in Massachusetts, which was also where factory production started, in the early 19th century.

And there was idealism; it’s not a simple reductionist picture. There are theories of democracy that contributed. But by and large, I think the real driving engine was the needs of production. It was a certain expansive phase, with a great imperative towards value-addedness, like literacy. And so, that expansive phase is almost what we came to take for granted. We erected visions of progress that would keep on going forever. We got the idea that education is always about inclusion and expansion and bringing more people in. And we had civil rights, racial desegregation, the disabilities movement, Title IX with gender equality. Over the generations, we got this picture of universal education as an unstoppable progressive force. And to me, I feel like we’re now witnessing the frightening spectre of a tectonic shift, where things are starting to contract because of the reduced need for human labor.

There’s an institutional lag time, but I think that change in the needs of capital is bound to have effects, and unfortunately fairly dramatic effects, on the project of universal public education. And so we’re seeing austerity, we’re seeing an increasing willingness to place the burden of that education, especially in higher ed, on individuals. As witnessed, and symptomatized by student debt.

In that context, then, how do you understand the movement toward charter schools?

I think the logic there is a kind of marketization logic. It’s an ideal of privatization which I think is ultimately tied to… I think privatization is the twin of austerity. Austerity being withdrawal of public commitment and public expenditure. I see those things as hand in hand, and they are symptomatic, from my point of view, of this decrease in commitment to that project of universal public education. Because the market logic sort of implies that education is this contingent matter for individuals. It’s less of a social good. It’s less of something we ought to worry about collectively, and more a commodity that individuals need to seize or take advantage of on their own. Invest in yourself. Or parents, invest in your children.

I don’t want to promote a kind of “good old days” picture here, but in the 19th century around the time of, say, land-grant colleges, we had robust agricultural expansion offices being set up. So, say I’m a farmer in Indiana somewhere, and I have these five young kids coming from the local college showing me some new agricultural technique having do to with fertilizer. And it increases my productivity and teaches me something worthwhile. It’s very easy for me to feel like, well hey, it does make sense for me to pay property taxes to support that stuff, because it comes back to me. It’s easier for me to buy into the idea that we as a society are actually better off if we augment the level of education of everyone.

It’s easy for me to see that I’m tied into that project. But once the state starts withdrawing from that commitment, it becomes much easier for that Indiana farmer to see education as just a personal investment in his or her own kids. And if it’s a personal investment, why should I have to pay for it? It’s not a social good that’s shared in any way. It’s like placing a bet on the stock market. In this case it’s the educational market; to the victor go the spoils. So I see charters and school choice as extensions of that basic logic. That education should be made much more a matter of personal choice, and the large-scale effect is that the rest of us, collectively as a society, we don’t really have a shared interest, we just have our own isolated interest in it.

The effect is this vast funneling of public money into private money. The profitability is lower in traditional capital modes, so it’s a good time to start looting erstwhile public institutions. In the book I call it the “searching under the couch cushions for loose change” phase of capitalism.

An obvious rebuttal to your argument about eliminationism in education would be that federal funding for public education has actually increased over the last decadePresident Obama has been championing universal pre-K. Here in New York, Mayor de Blasio is working to implement public pre-K services. Do you see those facts as products of institutional lag time, or how do you integrate them into your vision?

The way I would integrate it, I wouldn’t conflate public expenditure on schooling with increased commitment to education. So, for example, in cities and other places, my argument is not that schools are going to dry up and blow away, that we will stop having things called schools. In fact, we might have quite well-funded places called “schools.” Prisons are more expensive than schools. So I think even though the things are called schools, they’re internal nature is moving further away from citizenship goals, forget learning for its own sake. Those institutions, their level of funding may even increase. To do surveillance and warehousing… maintenance of a school-to-prison pipeline can be quite expensive. So I wouldn’t see an increase in funding of school systems and school employees and school buildings as any particular cause for optimism.

Near the end of your book you write, “my recommendation is to prepare for catastrophe.” Do you believe that catastrophe is a necessary precondition for our economic order to be reformed?

I think so. I think it’s gotta get worse before it gets better. A lot of people don’t like to hear that because it sounds defeatist. But I guess I really don’t see it that way. I think a certain type of fatalism actually is the only thing that gives me optimism.

So, an analogy that I think may help clarify the existential attitude here is, if, let’s say a blizzard is bearing down on my home, and I think: I need to do whatever I can to thwart the blizzard from coming. I need to stop it. I guess it would involve intervening with the weather. At a certain point, you realize it’s just going happen. And to me, a mode of preparation: battening down the hatches, boarding up the windows, getting the candles and the flashlights, filling up the bathtub with water… a preparatory attitude that accepts the inevitability of the blizzard is actually a more “activist,” sensible action or stance to take.

One thing that strikes me with that analogy, though, is that we have enough foreknowledge from previous blizzards to have a pretty good idea what being prepared for a blizzard entails. We can’t say the same about the collapse of the global economy.

I think you’re absolutely right. So the analogy breaks down a little bit there. It’s hard to create a preparedness pamphlet for something that’s never happened. But I’d say there are still things we can do. There’s value in small-scale social experiments.

An example would be something like permaculture, in terms of organics or agriculture. It’s not that Monsanto and the entire U.S. is going to turn to permaculture. But it’s really valuable that we have it around in pockets that have developed experience and expertise. So that’s one thing I think I would put in the preparatory toolkit. As much of those small-scale alternative experiments as possible. And I also wouldn’t minimize the value of psychological preparedness. History shows, I’m thinking of things like the economic collapse of the Soviet Union in the late ’80s early ’90s, where the currency collapsed, the economy wasn’t functioning for a period of time… What actually killed most people there were not directly food shortages, water shortages, shelter shortages, those sorts of things. It was more psychological problems, having to do with alcoholism and suicide. People just aren’t psychologically prepared at all for the possibility of this level of disruption.

One solution to the crisis created by increased productivity through automation would be to redistribute the abundance created by that productivity, without any labor requirement. You refer to this possibility, somewhat dismissively, as a “redistributive techno-utopia.” However, the idea of a Universal Basic Income has been gaining traction, at least amongst those paid to pontificate on economic matters. And in our history, it seems that there have been moments in which elites have made concessions to the broader public out of enlightened self-interest.

Like the New Deal era, for example?

And so you would credit that period of reform to the catastrophe of the Great Depression?

Yeah. I think so. It’s somewhat a case and point. And what’s useful there is to actually have a program ready to go. I want a forthrightly opportunistic sort of mindset. Sort of a Naomi Klein Shock Doctrine. The right is really great at Shock Doctrine, and maybe a little left-wing version of it would be salutary here. Again, it’s a preparatory mode. Ready with the tools that are going to make sense, not for now, not for tinkering with the status quo, but actually ready to make a difference in those moments when change really happens, in moments of acute economic crisis and war.

And that’s one of the scary things: War is one of the traditional reset mechanisms for capitalism. A means of restarting the value-creation machine. And so I actually think one very traditional mode of activism that is actually quite radical and appropriate is anti-war, anti-imperialism activism. For example with Syria, I think there was a real desire to intervene in Syria that was thwarted by whatever vestiges of public opinion still matter. And if that kind of war solution for destruction of capital is prevented, if that isn’t an option, then I think that could help create the conditions for the kind of cataclysmic change that I think is needed to force the hand of the system economically.

What would you say to the argument that catastrophe, historically, is more conducive to reactionary or regressive kinds of change? And that it’s actually times of abundance and prosperity in which the left has been most successful, when people, particularly the young, feel enough economic security to spend time contemplating and fighting for political alternatives, as arguably happened in the 1960s?

I think I actually agree a lot on that. It’s really naïve to think, okay, cataclysm… economic, or climatic… I think it could come from many different directions, unfortunately. I sort of sardonically refer to them as the “three horsemen of the apocalypse:” economic crisis, climate change, or energy depletion, any one of which could generate something pretty wrenching. But I agree that it’s naïve to think we’ll have a wrenching social cataclysm and out of it will pop permacultural, agrarian, leftist communism or something like that. In fact, I would say if I had to place a cold-eyed bet? In this country, I’d put my money on fascism.

But to me that provides further fuel for the argument of a preparatory mode. A certain type of survivalism is warranted. Not a survivalism of canned goods, stockpiled weapons and buried gold. But an intelligent survivalism, where you realize what’s really key are certain bonds of neighborhood. The face-to-face solidarity that can be fostered in an urban space. Traditions of mutual aid that can be developed and enhanced.

But it’s true, you can’t root for a catastrophe. There’s too much human misery involved. And ultimately, it’s a bit like Russian roulette. There’s an element of contingency that can’t be wished away.

Follow Eric Levitz on Twitter @EricLevitz.

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