The Role of Marxist Educators Against and Within Neoliberal Capitalism
by Dave Hill[i]
This is a potentially revolutionary period in world history. The collapse of finance capitalism, the bankers’ bailouts across the globe, the continuing bankers’ bonuses, and the intrinsic problems of finance capitalism (such as overproduction and under-consumption, caused by the three decade squeeze on workers’ wages), have, under current `bourgeois’ parliamentarist rule, resulted in ordinary families, workers and communities) `paying for the crisis’, while the national and international capitalist classes and organisations impose austerity capitalism on reeling publics and public educational, social, health and welfare systems.
Schooling and Education Within/ Under Capitalism
How does the socio-economic and political system of a country work in complicity with the corporate media, and how does this impact the school system? There is no automatic mechanistic and deterministic fine-grained relationship between an economic structure, such as the capitalist economic structure and resulting social relationships on the one hand, and society’s social and political structures on the other, even though there is an overall relationship. There is resistance, at various levels, by individuals, by groups, in what is a permanent `culture wars’ between the ideas of the ruling capitalist class and their mouthpieces, and resistant, counter-hegemonic individuals and groups, such as students, critical intellectuals, and organizations such as (some) workers’ organizations. Schools and universities, echoing Althusser (1971) are ideological state apparatuses whose purpose, for the capitalist class, is to preach and instil pro-capitalist and anti-socialist beliefs, to re-produce tiered hierarchicalised and socialized /quiescent labour power for the workplace.
The Mass media Within/ Under Capitalism
Within the Mass Media, views alternative to capitalism are mocked, vilified, and ignored, if they are fundamental rather than cosmetic alternatives. Within schools and universities, and vocational colleges, it is true that oppositional teachers/faculty in the public education system in Britain and the U.S. do get sidelined for promotion, isolated, and dismissed. One difference between the media and schooling/education state apparatuses is that the control by media bosses is more complete than that of school and university bosses/ management. Even the `impartial’ BBC in the UK rarely allows socialist or radical left speakers, such as Salma Yaqoob, George Galloway, or socialist trade union leader, Bob Crow on to programmes like `Question Time’. All the bourgeois parties, whether from the right, the centre, or the former social democratic soft /moderate left, say there is no alternative to the austerity programme.
So how does, and how has the capitalist system impacted the school system in Britain? Scotland and Northern Ireland have major devolved powers from the UK Parliament concerning education, while Wales has some devolved powers. Yet, there are very pronounced similarities between U.S. and England/Wales, indeed, global, education policies. The G.W. Bush administration engaged in policy borrowing- from the increased marketisation, stratification, and importation of new public managerialism and commercial interest in state/public education that were introduced by the Thatcher governments(1979-1990) in legislation such as the Education Reform Act of 1988. There has been extensive `policy borrowing’ of neoliberal ideas and policies on education globally (a number of my own articles/ chapters on this can be found at http://www.ieps.org.uk/papersdh.php, for example).
In the competitive market system of schooling in England, where schools are ranked on published ‘league tables’ of SATs and 16+ exam (GCSE, the General Certificate of Secondary Education) attainments, ‘rich’ schools have got richer, and so called ‘sink schools’ have sunk further. Those schools become more ‘middle class’, and low-performing schools more ‘working class’. Class differentiation has increased, along with intensified surveillance of teachers and lecturers. And, as a feature of neoliberal capitalist discourse (and resulting policy) on education, it is the teachers and the public sector professionals that are blamed, rather than the high stakes testing, competitive education system itself, and it’s structural discrimination against working class and some / many ethnic minorities.
Social Class and Multiple Subjectivities
Social class is segmented in two ways. Social class is stratified horizontally by different social class strata or groups- for example, unskilled workers as the bottom stratum, skilled workers as a stratum above, then ‘white collar’ lower middle class sitting, in diagrammatic terms on top of those two groups and so on with layer upon layer of different social class strata on top. These strata/groups are characterised by different levels of reward, power, autonomy, health, and, indeed, actual length of life. But social class is also segmented vertically by ‘race’ and by gender, for example.
Classical Marxism holds to a binary analysis of class (see Hill, 1999; Kelsh and Hill, 2006) but recognises the existence of different strata within the working class, that class of people who sell their labour power.
The widespread use of Weberian/neo-Weberian/lifestyle/consumption-based classifications of social class, such as Census classifications in different countries, and market research classification, ‘hide’ the capitalist class and the relations of production- the source of the Marxist definition(s) of class, and serve to segment and divide the working class–that class of workers (and dependents) who sell their labour-power. The Occupy Wall Street slogans about 99% against 1% are a pretty accurate application of the classical Marxist notion/analysis of class, with the 1% of the population who are the capitalists, exploiting the rest of the population who, whatever the descriptions applied to them, ‘middle class’, `working class’, `working middle class’ etc. share the major characteristic of Marxist class analysis of the working class. They are all exploited by the capitalist class which makes profit from the surplus value produced by their labour power.
In relation to social class and education, Steven J. Ball’s writings show how what, in Weberian, consumption based ‘social class’ classification systems are termed ‘middle class’ parents take ‘positional advantage’ in a market system (for example, Ball, 2006).
The rich do not have to bother maneuvering for positional class advantage. They buy it. With school fees at private (independent) schools being as much for one child as two to three times the total income of the minimum waged and the lower paid. In Britain, around 7% of the children in the country have privileged education bought for them in private schools. And they go to the most prestigious universities, and get the top jobs in hugely disproportionate numbers.
Thatcher’s policies (1979-1990), continued by her Conservative successor (John Major, 1990-1997) and intensified by the Blair `New Labour’ (1997- 2007) and Brown `New Labour’ governments (2007-2010), have to a large extent destroyed the (already flawed) system of all-ability, mixed social class comprehensive schools in Britain (see Hill, 2006b). Academies are a set of schools with greater autonomy over admissions, the curriculum, teachers’ pay, the school workforce skill-mix, the budget, schools that are also taxpayer funded but outside the control of the democratically elected and accountable local education authority (in the USA, ‘school district’) (Millar, 2012). The American equivalent of ‘Academies’ are Charter Schools. In Britain, around 7% of the children in the country have privileged education bought for them in private schools. The attainment map (of results for SATS and for GCSEs) in Britain mirrors the map of social deprivation, more specifically, the map showing the percentage of students receiving ‘Free School Meals’ (FSM). It varies from school to school, from local education authority (`school district’ in USA parlance) from virtually zero percent, to schools where most- a majority- of students are poor enough to qualify for and receive FSM.
Inequality in Education and Society: Meritocracy, and Egalitarianism
To turn from the relationship between class, education and neoliberalism, a related question is, can we have equity and social equality in a capitalist society such as the UK or the United States or Greece or Singapore? Within capitalist societies there are, and can be, varying degrees of equity/ inequity, social equality/ inequality. Capitalist society can be regulated to control profits and spread wealth, in the form of wages/salaries/income, and also in the form of the social wage, the welfare state, unemployment benefits, housing benefit/subsidy for the low paid, free universal health care, and state pensions. This is what a social democratic version of capitalist governments have gone for- at least in times of boom, where there is/ was enough profit in the eyes of significant sectors of the capitalist class for large profits, and enough too, for spending on actual and social wage rises. Where we socialists and Marxists disagree with reformists, or `revisionists’, is that we fight for reformist improvements within capitalist society, but from a critical position. By ‘critical position’, I mean a Marxist position, based on Marxist analysis of the essentially exploitative class-based nature of capitalist economy and society, and a determination to replace capitalism by socialism.
In Marxist analysis there can never be economic equity and social equity within capitalist systems. A functioning meritocracy is a more or less unequal route to hugely unequal society, hugely unequal pay packets, hugely stratified societies. We really are seeing the impoverishment and to use a Marxist term, `immiseration’ (Greaves, Hill and Maisuria, 2007) of the working class in countries such as Greece and Britain.
A functioning meritocracy is a more or less unequal route to hugely unequal society, hugely unequal pay packets, hugely stratified societies. The 1% in Singapore or Finland or Japan may have wealth and income less disproportionate to the bottom 99% or bottom 25% or 10% than that held/ taken by the top 1% in the USA, or Britain, or Greece or Ireland, but the differences between the top 1%, the `top’ capitalists and their `top’ managers and bankers are still staggeringly huge. Just to take one example of inequality, in 2010 in London, the top 10% of society had on average a wealth of £933,563 compared to the meagre £3,420 of the poorest 10% – a wealth multiple of 273. (Ramesh, 2010). This level of inequality has not been seen since the days of the slave trade. (We really are seeing the impoverishment and to use a Marxist term, `immiseration’ (Greaves, Hill and Maisuria, 2007) of the working class in countries such as Greece and Britain, and far more so in the `superexploitation’ typical of developing countries such as China..
Capitalist economies and societies vary enormously in terms of how an economy/ society is. Countries range from hugely unequal rich societies/ economies such as the USA, the UK and Portugal- the most unequal of the `rich’ countries of substantial size on the planet, to the least unequal/ the most equal of those rich (of substantial size) societies/ economies. However much social mobility there is in a capitalist society/ economy, however much such societies/ economies facilitate and are marked by meritocracy, however equal the chances of `getting on’, of attaining a well-paid job are, meritocratic capitalism is characterized by this: equal chances to reach extremely unequal positions. Capitalist economic relations are essentially anti-egalitarian. Profit is the life blood of capitalism. Capitalists profit from the surplus value taken from the labour power of workers.
Teacher, Educators and Critical Pedagogy
So then, what role should teachers within schools, colleges, universities, those of us who are critical of capitalist education, what role should we play? Teachers should be actively involved in the fights for economic and social justice, that they should be critical, organic, public, socialist, transformative intellectuals, who are activists. Within the field of education, much has been written about Critical pedagogy (associated with Paolo Freire and Henry Giroux, for example, such as Giroux, 1988) and the more revolutionary, Marxist, Revolutionary Critical Pedagogy of Peter McLaren (McLaren, 2005).
Critical means just that- being suspicious, questioning, interrogating, not accepting prima facie evidence, digging deeper, with a commitment to social and economic justice
Organic is being part of, knowing about, living, and representing the class/section of the class we are representing.
Public means going public, speaking out, and defying intimidation.
Socialist means being egalitarian, working for an egalitarian, and non-capitalist society, where the wealth (such as ‘the commanding heights of the economy’–banks, industry, and public utilities) of the country is owned collectively.
Transformative means using out abilities, teaching, membership, and leadership to critique and work towards reconstruction.
Intellectual in the Gramscian sense (Gramsci, 1971; Giroux, 1988) recognizes that all people can think and do intellectualize. But that those of us who are educational or cultural or political workers have a unique position-and responsibility. Our job as teachers, as educators, is to think, to deal in thought. We have the luxury to think about, teach, discuss with others, ideas.
But our duty as socialist critical transformative activist intellectuals is more than this. It is to offer intellectual stimulus, analysis, utopianism, hope, vision–and an analysis of how to get there–organization. Hence I think it necessary to add, to critical, organic, public, socialist, transformative, and intellectual, the characteristic of ‘activist’.
We must also be Reconstructive, and develop and work systems that are collegial, socially and environmentally responsible and egalitarian; that are anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic. (In Hill, 2010), I suggest principles and policies that could underlay a socialist education policy). A fundamental of critical policy analysis is to critically interrogate policy at all levels, and ask `who wins and who loses?’ And in designing programmes, pedagogies, action plans, government legislation, education policies, fiscal, economic and employment policies, we should look at policies through a class perspective, which (`raced’ and gendered) class, and class strata stand to win or lose, and what will they win/ lose, and how? And what do they win or lose? Higher educational test results? A `rounded education’? A bigger pay packet? Better health? Longer life?` A longer, healthier life? In doing so, in performing critical policy analysis, we must critically interrogate our own policies, and avoid leaders, whether intellectual or political, holding aloft predesigned packages/ gifts / policies.
At the end of the day, or at the end of the week, we have to realize there is only so much we can do within the classroom, within the lecture hall, within the school or college. That we need, to the best of our abilities, and within our commitments to family etc. to work in arenas beyond the school gate, within parties, groups, campaigns, movements, protests, demonstrations, organizations, at local, national, and linking into global movements. But that is another, albeit closely related and certainly necessary, kettle of fish.
[i] Professor/ Visiting Professor of Education at the Universities of Middlesex (England), Limerick (Ireland) and Athens (Greece)
Chief Editor, the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, www.jceps.com
firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
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Ramesh, R. (2010) London’s richest people worth 273 times more than the poorest
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