Education, neoliberalism and class struggle

In this interview with the Turkish radical paper soL (Left) Dave Hill explains how neoliberalism is impacting on education in the British state and surveys the European political situation

Dave hill interviewed by Derya ünlü, for the Left Turkish daily newspaper, soL, 6 November 2012

In your speech to staff and students at Ankara University, you said that neoliberalism has a twin – neoconservatism – and you said that today we have been experiencing both neoliberalisation and neoconservatisation. And we know that Britain is the center of this transformation. So how this transformation going on in Britain?

Neoliberalisation is very strong in Britain, neoliberalisation of all the public services but especially education. And there is now very great resistance. But large scale resistance is recent.

Let me first explain some of the main aspects of neoliberalism- marketisation, and privatisation/ pre-privatisation.

Neoliberalisation affects schools, it affects universities. With schools we now have a system of market competition between schools. The last Conservative governments , those of Thatcher and of John Major, introduced something which they called ` choice’ ‘, more specifically `parental choice’. But, of course, it is not the parents who choose, it is the schools which choose. They choose the students, the children. So, this leads to much increased hierarchy and elitism within the state education system. So, that is one aspect of the neoliberalization in schooling. And choice is facilitated by the creation of the league tables of schools, and of universities, league tables of schools (and universities) by exam results.

One aspect is in Britain, maybe not (yet?) in Turkey, but it happens in Britain very strongly and in the United States very strongly, is that in a market, if you are neoliberal, you need to be able to test what you think is the efficiency and value of the products. So in England we now have a very rigid sytems of testing children at different ages, even, when they first enter the schools. That could be either at age four or five. As result of the exam results of the children, of the assessment results of the children, there becomes a league table in every municipality, in every part of the country, in every area, there are league tables of schools. And, of course, it is middle class parents who have the means, the cars, the cost of transport, to take the children to the schools which have higher results, which may be some distance away.

There is also general difference in attitude. If you look at the sociology of education that tends to be a difference in attitude between so called middle class parents and so called working class parents . So called middle class parents, sociologists write, prize more characteristics such as individualism, success and career. Whereas there is a tendency (and I know this is a big generalisation) but there is a tendency, when choosing , applying for a school for their children, for working class parents to prize other factors, such as staying within the local community, so that children will be going to school with their friends. And, of course, if you don’t have much money, then the question of distance from school, choosing a local school that is easy (and cheap) to get to, is a factor in parental choice. ?f you have no money for bus fares or for train fares, that is a factor.

As a result of `parental choice’ and published/ public league tables, we have seen a big increase in differentiation between the high achieving schools and low achieving schools. ?n Britain 13 percent of children have `free school meals’, the poorest 13 percent have free dinners at school. I did when I was a boy. If we look at two maps in England the map showing who receive free school dinners, and the map of exam results, the maps are identical. We know that the map showing assessments at tests and exams, the map of high and low attainment in school tests, mirrors the map of the existing income inequality. That is one spects of the impact of neoliberalism on schools.

Another aspect of neoliberalism, and this is very serious, is privatisation and pre-privatisation. In Britain, the government is engaging with schools on a program of pre-privatisation. So what they have done is they have set up a so-called academy system, where some state schools remain state funded, and within the state system, but are redesignated as `Academies’. What that means is that schools, over half of secondary schools in England, in fact, are now `academies’ and some primary schools/ elementary schools as well.
What is an academy? An academy is where government gives to any religious group, can be Muslim, can be Jewish, can be Christian, or to any rich businessman or any rich business women and can say, `look, have this school you can call it and name it with your name and you can name it after your wife or your business/ company’, or, I guess, even name it after your pet dog. `You can name it, and then you can have control over the school!. You can appoint a majority of the governors, the people who run the schools, the people who oversee the headteacher’. You can change the contract of the teachers ultimately. You can change the skill-mix of staff, that is, the numbers of fully qualified teachers, and the numbers of less well qualified (and much lower paid) `teaching assistants’. You can have less teachers and more teaching assistants. You can change the length of the school day and you can change the curriculum. You have to follow the national curriculum, but if you want much more religion, for example fundamentalist religion, more fundamentalist Christian religion, then the government says that is fine. This is an aspect of pre-privatization. ?t would be extremely easy, with one ministerial signature, for the government to change these academies into completely private schools. At the moment all these academies are `not for profit’ organisations. At the minute, in England, you can’t make a profit from running schools. But we can look America where there are Charter Schools and we can see that some of them are `for profit’, with multinational and national capital, companies, making profits from running state schools! In Britain, there is a big danger of schools being privatised.
Neoliberalism is always accompanied with neoconservatism. Because the capitalist class, and the governments they control, have to make sure that this freedom in the market is controlled, in Britain the Thatcher government. in the 1988 Education Reform Act. instituted a national curriculum. ?t is quite rigid and it is a conservative curriculum. Margaret Thatcher herself looked at the some of the curriculum proposals said `no, that is too liberal’. She herself, and I have written on this, she herself changed the curriculum. That is an element of state control, control of the free market. An example of where neoliberalism, `free choice’, is accompanied by state supervision/ control.

What is happening in the other European countries, are there any similarities?

I have spent a lot of time in Ireland, Spain and Greece, the United States and now in Turkey. I spend time speaking, usually, to academic audiences, but also to trade unions and workers’ organisations.

The paths of neoliberalisation and neoconservatism are similar in many countries. But each country has its own history, has its own particular context, each country has its own balance of class forces, its own level of organisation of the working class. So In some countries where the resistance to neoliberalism is very strong, like in Greece, then the government has found it actually so far very difficult to have large scale privatisation. Because just about every time the Greek government tries to privatise, just about every public sector activity, the ports, the buses, the trains, the museums etc., almost every time there is a general strike. Working class consciousness and class organisation, in a situation of naked class war from above, are highly developed.
But in some countries, where trade union resistance and working class’ organisations’ resistance is historically very weak, for example Ireland, the United States, in those countries neoliberalism has, and the capitalist class has, an easier path. There has beeen little resistance even to extreme measures taken by, for example recently in Wisconsin in the US, the state government passed a law which made it illegal to negotiate with trade unions. In other words it has said there would be no more collective bargaining with trade unions. OK, there were big protests, big demonstrations, big union protests -but the law passed.

To us in Britain, that was incredible, because although we have neoliberal and neoconservative governments in Britain, both Conservative and New Labour, the trade unions still have great strength. The Trade Unions Congress (TUC) in Britain has around six million members.Two weeks ago, on 20 October, one hundred and fifty thousand of us went on the march in London against austerity.

When the organised working class wakes up, then we can take very strong action. But some trade union leaders sometimes, they live comfortable lives, sometimes they have good relations with the government, not all the trade union leaders are radical. However, some union leaderships are Marxist. In Britain the Communist Party of Britain has some power in union at the top level, so does the Trotsyist group called the Socialist Party, the Committee for a Workers International, and so does the Socialist Workers Party. And of course, socialists and Marxists are very active within the membership of trade unions, pushing the leadership into more redical action. The power of the organised working class, if it is spurred into action, can have some considerable impact. We hope in Britain to have a general strike next year. We, Marxists, activists, are workiong towards that. This would be only the second general strike in British history, the first since 1926. Currently, the Trades Union Congress is discussing calling a general strike in 2013.
Levels of resistance vary very march in different countries. In Portugal, for example, recently there were one million on strike, one million in demonstrations. That is in a small country of 8 million people. In ?reland, there are very small demonstrations, the best action in ?reland against austerity and neoliberalism was one worker drove his big digger truck into the gates of parliament.

What is crucial is unity on the left, in resisting neoliberalism and neoconservatism. The capitalist class is very happy when the left is disunited. When the left fights each other instead of fighting capitalism. That is a big problem on the left, the problem of sectarianism. And in each country the biggest group usually, though not always, refuses to work with the small groups.
But, because of the fear, because of the social catostrophe that is caused by neoliberalism and by neoconservatism, we are now seeing, across Europe, different forces on the left joining together. In ?reland, the United Left Alliance (ULA) brings together some main forces on the left. In England, I am an activist in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) which has some support from the Communist Party (in England the CPB is very small). But TUSC is mainly the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Socialist Party (SP), some members of Socialist Resistance (SR), some independent marxists in the Independent Socialist Network (ISN), together with leading trade unionists. So, in TUSC we have comrades from different left political traditions. That is a very hopeful development.

The best development, I guess, is in Greece. For example there are two far left coalitions. One is Syriza which is a coalition of 13 different parties ranging from Maoist Marxist- Leninist to left social democrat. And they will probably win the next election in Greece and become a left government. The other is Antarsya, also a coalition of various Marxist forces, which has a more clearly revolutionary perspective, and an emphasis on direct action as much as on electoralism/ parliamentarism.
But what type of left government would Syriza lead? It could be a reformist government or even, on the other hand, as the strength of the workers’ movement grows, and they confront with capital, they could then engage in a revolutionary process. We don’t yet know in which direction Syriza will move, if it becomes the government in Greece.
I fear that they would become another social democratic reformist government, saying, `let us manage capitalism’, a government that works within capitalism, instead of a government which says `let us replace capitalism’. In Turkey, from my limited knowledge- I have only been here for five days- but I have been in intensive discussions with comrades- communist, Trotskyist, and other marxists. In that short period I have discovered that the largest group on the left is Communist Party of Turkey. From outside, I think it is time in Britain, in Turkey, in Greece, in the States, while retaining our various critiques, to put aside the historic differences between different marxist forces. So what I try to build is revolutionary unity between communists, between other marxists, between all marxists . As I say, it is in the interest of the capitalist class that we remain disunited, and of course the capitalist class uses state agents to disrupt is, they use agents provocateurs.

One very interesting development in Greece is that some anarchist groups are now actually working with the rest of the left. This doesn’t happen much, it doesn’t happen much in Britain. The experience of working together just like in Britain, the experience of different marxist groups working together is important. We say that `OK we disagree with the view of North Korea, with attitudes to/ analysis of the Soviet state and Stalin. We might disagree over the nature of the Cuban revolution/ state, but, while we need to engage in theoretical analysis and discussion, we have to work together- in the streets, in demonstrations, in anti-austerity national and local movements’.

Ireland is in a some ways possibly similar to Turkey. The influence of religion is still quite strong. It is a Catholic country. So the church in Ireland has very considerable power over the schools. Nearly all the schools actually are Catholic schools. This is very different from Britain which is predominantly a secular country. In Ireland what the government is doing is cutting services, increasing taxes and charges, and in education, like in most countries it is cutting courses except for vocational/ work-oriented courses, and it is making students pay, and it is cutting support.

I didn’t much talk about neoconservatism. Neoliberalism is brutal. Neoliberal capitalism wih the increase in poverty, immiseration, with impoverishment, leads to people dying earlier, poor people die earlier, younger. Not the all people suffer, the rich don’t die earlier. So capitalism kills because their god is money. Their god is not collective happiness, collective security, collective health. Their god is simply profit.

When the brutality and sheer injustice of austerity capitalism becomes so obvious, when it is reflected in the material conditions of people’s actual existence and lives, then , resistance become stronger. And so, in parallel, repression gets stronger. So we see for example in Greece, and in the US just one little example. The teargas that the police use is becoming more toxic, more chemically dangerous.

Police in different countries are developing new repressive tactics. In different countries there are different traditions. In England the police don’t use rubber bullets (except, historically, in Northern Ireland). But now there is discussion about the police in England using rubber bullets. There is discussion about the police using water cannons. But they have never used water cannons so far, other than in Northern Irland.

But they do have another tactic is called, is a new tactic, `kettling’. The police surround a group of demonstrators, then they press in on them. So you may have a thousand demonstrators pressed into a smaller and smaller space for several hours, with no toilet, no food, no water. This is happening now in England. You could say that this is not a violent tactic. But it is. It doesn’t break people’s heads. ?t doesn’t kill people but it is an intimidation.

So the levels of repression are increasing. But, if there is crowd ten of us, the police find it easy. If there is a crowd of a thousand of us then police find it easy. If there is a crowd of a million of us, the police can do nothing.

We see in Greece the most advanced forms of resistance in Europe since 1974 in Portugal, since 1968 in France. Greece today is not in a revolutionary situation. It is not in a pre-revolutionary situation. But Greece today is in a pre-pre-revolutionary situation. So for example, there have been occupations of ministries, but lasting for only a day or two. So there have been occupations- of a steelyard, a television station, a newspaper, of municipal offices. And there has been the growth of local area peoples’ assemblies. Around a hundred of them. You could almost say that these are the initial signs of developments roughly parallel to the Soviets. This must go on further. We see the potential of `dual power’. We gain experience and we gain confidence. But, the state reacts, the state passes laws, in Greece recently the state tried to stop demonstrations in Syntagma Square. Sometimes of course the capitalist class can not rely on the police. To bring in army sometimes is difficult.

In Greece, the Nazi party, `Golden Dawn’, wants to expel all Turks, immigrants, Arabs, and to have a strong man dictator, like Hitler, who they publicly admire. They are already attacking people, the minorities, the Left. When I was in Greece they were attacking some Antarsya stalls, Antarsya members, as well as attacking- physically- gays, minorities. They have killed some immigrants. They beat people up. If they get stronger and stronger they will kill communists, they will try to kill marxists.

It is incredible, it is unbelievable, that fifty percent of the Athens police are voting for this Nazi party. They help them, they give them clubs. The police in Athens, in Greece, are now starting to become more violent, torturing leftists. This has been widely publiciswed in the liberal-left English newspaper, `The Guardian’, as well as on socialist websites.

So this is a very dangerous aspects of class polarization. We on the left, we communists, we marxists, we have to try to create class consciousness, so that we become a class for ourselves not simply a class in ourselves. And that way we can perhaps win over some of the less committed people who are now supporting the fascist Nazi party, Golden Dawn. I do fear that in Greece if Syriza does actually become yet another social democrat government, if it does become obedient to the demands of the capitalist class, if it continues with the policies of the Troika, of continued austerity and savagery, then many people will on left will give up, will leave the left and support Nazis.

A different alternative is that the far left in Greece could actually develop a revolutionary situation. But what about the Communist Party in Greece, the KKE? The communist party does not collaborate with other groups. In Britain the Communist Party collaborates with others (actually they are split, some want to `reclaim the Labour Party for the Left’, others want to support TUSC). And so in France, in Spain, in Portugal, the communist party works with other groups in the left. I think that is central to what should be Left Strategy in the face of capitalst austerity, immiseration capitalism, and the danger of Fascism and Nazism.

What do you think about Turkey in terms of neoliberalization and neoconservatization?

I am very worried and I am sure the Left are very worried because we are now seeing a soft ?slamicisation of society, and of education. In fact it is not so soft. In Turkey, neoliberalism is accompanied by a conservatisation of society and education. I know that at this moment Turkey is not facing the same situation and brutal repression as under the Turkish military dictatorship. I know that at this moment the prisons are not full of Leftists and torture. Of course some unions activists are in prison now under false charges of supporting the PKK, accused of supporting terrorism. And this is to intimidate the Left. But Turkey is not now under military dictatorship, and we are not in the Nazi/ Fascist situation.

But this is perhaps even more dangerous. In schools for example, I know the new curriculum, introduced by this AKP government, including, for the first time since the Kemalist revolution nrarly a century ago, the study in schools of two hours a week on the Koran, and two hours a week on the life of Muhammed. I think this is very worrying.?t is of course very convenient for capitalism if big sections of the population start to become more religious, more subservient to the afterlife, more subservient to conservative morality as opposed to Marxist collectivist morality. I think it is also worrying, the visible signs of ?slam in streets like many women wearing the headscarfs. In England, I teach Masters degree students, I teach PhD students, who are headscarf/ hijab wearing Muslim women. I know that in England, some of them some of the women Muslim students are very comitted to racial equality, to gender equality, to class equality and I know that some of them choose the headscarf, the hijab, and remain radical. Perhaps that is not the case in Turkey. Perhaps in Turkey it is deliberate identification with the ?slamization of society. So there are differences in countries.

I am also very well aware that the leftists in the universities in Turkey feel pressures- not so much in the largest, most prestigious universities, but in small universities. Numerous comrades have told me of the increasiong official pressures on, against them because of their Marxist/ Communist beliefs. In the small universities I have comrades who are saying it is much more difficult for them to teach critical pedagogy, for them to teach Marxist analysis of society. This is a dangerous, repressive development. It is of course what the USA government and transnational/ national capitalist classes want. This is what international capitalists want. The USA, and multinational capital are very happy now to work with pro-business, pro-neoliberal what they regard as moderate ?slamic states. The USA sees Turkey as a futuree model for Egypt for Libya and of course what happens in Egypt and in Turkey is the direct attack on trade unions. This is very noticable in Egypt, where the strong trade unions and workers’ organizations with a long history , like going on strike, etc. One of the first act of the so called `democratic’ new Egypt is to attack to trade union rights and attack to trade unionists.

Here is a sentence from Turkish Ministery Education’ program announced in 2011: : designing, applying and updating education and schoolteaching programmes that invest students the competitive capacity, information and abilities in the global level which are required by the economical system; carrying out education services of teachers and students within this frame . This sentence explains the basic duty of education in Turkey.

Ohhhh!, unbelievable!. This is very good demonstration of what Louis Althusser said about education as one of the main ideological state apparatuses. The main ideological apparatus. In every country, in England as well they have an ideological agenda. Children are told to be competitive, individualistic, children are told to set up businesses, to value moneymaking, and `the spirit of enterprise’. This is against Leftist notions of collectivity, solidarity, public service, public good.

In schools we as radical educators have to try to do four things.

One, we try to have democratic participative pedagogy which breaks down patterns of domination and submission and listens to children’s and local communities’ voices – but not uncritically. Postmodernists accepted all voices as being equally valued. I think we have, as Marxists, as Critical Educators, we have right to criticize, to engage in critique. The first aspect we can do as radical critical marxist educators is to have different types of pedagogy in classrooms.

Secondly the curriculum. When we read the statement of the Turkish government about `Enterprise and Education’, there are similar statements in England. However, even where the curriculum is very tighhtly controlled, even where it is very rigidly prescribed, there are, as Gramsci, the Italian Communist theoretician of the early twentieth ccentury taught us, always spaces, there are always little spaces for us to infiltrate, to use, to colonise. Even inside a rigid curriculum. For example in my teaching, for the last 40 years I have been a teacher in elementary schools, secondary / high schools, in prison and for the last thirty years I have been teaching in different universities and vocational colleges.

We can look at the curriculum and we can ask the students, `who do you think wrote this?’, who do you think decided on including this in the curriculum?, who do you think benefits, who wins from this curriculum?, who loses?, what is the ideology behind this book/ task/ lesson/ curriculum piece?’ We can do this with ten year olds, we can do this with 16 year olds, we can do this with 40 year olds.

However limited the spaces are, within a school, within a university, within a curriculum, we can always find some spaces to question and to encourage the children/ students to do this. To question but also encourage the students to understand what we call `ideology critique’. And then we can give an alternative, may be for five minutes in the lesson. We can give, we can present, we can question existing versions of history. We can say, ` well is there a different version, a different view of the past, of the present, of the future’.

So, looking at the work of Marxist and Communist teachers, we can affect pedagogy, and we can affect the content of curriculum,

A third issue in education is how children of different social class backgrounds, genders, ethnic backgrounds/ cultures, are labelled, segrerated, divided. I know that in Turkey all children goto the same school. But working class kids go to the working class schools, middle class kids go to middle class schools. There is this question of the how we organize the kids? How the education system tries to keep the working class as a working class that is obedient, subservient, individualistic, interested in only themselves not in collectivity, not in community. Pedagogy, content, organization of kids.

The fourth thing, is the question who should govern the schools? Of course we can not change the law but we can lead a movement that at some stage in two years time, ten years time, twenty years time, that at some some stage ownership of schools, the governance of schools can be changed, can be democratic, and secular. Instead of as in some countries, schools being run by a religious or semi-religious state, or municipality, by religious organisations themselves, by `for-profit’ private companies, or by rich businessmen or women. Schools should be run democratically, with school workers and students, as well as elected representatives of local communities having some power in and over schools, within a secular, democratic national framework.

In Turkey it has been argued that localization. Localization sounds democratic but it is defined in neoliberal term. What do you think about, are there any examples of it?

The Capitalist class is very good at using left wing language to promote their agenda. Three years ago I edited four books, for Routledge Publishers, on globalization and I looked at liberalism and education all over the world- Latin America, Aisa, Africa, Europe. The books are in a series that I edit, called `Neoliberalism and Education’.

Within, and as part of neoliberalism, localisation, often called `decentralisation’, is very common. ?t is presented as if it is democratic. And it could be democratic, but it is not, not when presented and advanced by neoliberals. Decentralisation could be democratic if instead of bosses having a big say, a control over local decentralised schools and universities, if instead of that, then students and workers/ teachers/ lecturers and locally elected representatives had power.

In England the way decentralisation works is that on the governing body of all the schools, by law, they have to have representatives of the local business community. ?t is unbelievable, but, also by law, school governing bodies also have ti include a representative of the police. ?ncredible! That is under the 1986 Education Act and the 1998 Education Reform Act.

Localization/ decentralisation can have advantages in terms of representing the local communities and the students and the teachers. But there is a big danger. The Capitalist class wants to destroy national agreements, national pay bargaining with trade unions, national pay scales, national work agreements. Decentralisation can lead to destroying national agreements.

For example, in England teachers in schools have national pay bargaining. In countries such as England, or El Salvador, governments want to localize, or regionalise, pay bargaining. What does that mean: ?t mean cutting teachers’ pay in poor areas. In England, the current government wants regional, not national pay bargaining.And of course this is a way to destroy the unity of teachers. So in England under the Margaret Thatcher legislation it is not easy to go on strike. There are a lots of legal impediments, barriers, against going on strike. So you can only go on strike against your own direct employer. You can not have political general strike. You can not have `sympathetic strikes’ in support of a different group of workers on strike.

In Britain now, we are hoping that every union will choose the same day to go on strike against each employer. For example overr the cutting of pensions and changes to the retirement age etc. The Capitalist class wants to destroy national bargaining over workers’ pay and conditions.

But of course it would keep the neoconservative twin of neoliberalism , neo-conservatism, it would keep central control over the curriculum . That will continue. (for working class kids, anyhow- children of the elite in Britain go to Private Schools. These do not have to follow the National Curriculum).

I think we Marxists, all the time, we have to make sure that the interests of the working class, those of us who sell our labour power to capitalists and the apparatuses of the capitalist state, all the time we have to challenge the dominant ideology of the ruling class, the bourgeoisie. We are in a battle for dominance of our ideas, there are `culture wars’ between different ways of looking at/ interpreting the world. We have to contest the currently hegemonic control of ideas by the the capitalist state, schools, media, and their allies in the religions.

If we sit and do nothing, if their ideas are not contested, then capitalism will continue to rule, to demean, to divide, to impoverish us.At certain times in history, and in certain locations, the disjunction- the gap- the difference- between the material conditions of worker’s existence on the one hand, our daily lived experience, and, on the other hand, what the newspapers and the media and the imam and the priest and the rabbi say/ preach, that gap becomes so stark, so obvious, that workers’ subjective consciousness changes. At this moment- now- in some countries in the world, the gap between the `official’ ideology that `we are all in together’ and that `there is no alternative’ (to austerity)- that gap becomes so large that the ruling party, and the ruling capitalist class, and capitalism itself, loses legitimacy. And so, like in Greece now, and in Portugal, in Spain, and in other countries such as Britain, we Marxists are necessary. Necessary in leading and developing changes in conciousness, a change in class consciousness. And in playing a leading role in organising for the replacement of capitalism. And that is very hopeful development under these current years of austerity capitalism.

Lastly, what do you want to say for our readers?

I finished my speech yesterday (5.11.2012) with the words : `Workers of the world, Unite!’ But I think what would be said is this, `Political parties and organisations of the radical left , political parties of the left of social democracy, in other words all marxist parties and forces- we must work together’.

Dave Hill is an activist in Socialist Resistance and in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coaltion in Britain. He is Professor of Education Research at Anglia Ruskin University.


  1. Marxists carry a lot of baggage with them. Every attempt to introduce Marxism inbto a society has ended in mass extermination of large parts of the population. I don’t want that for England or for Turkey. BTW I also teach masters and PhD students.

  2. “Every attempt to introduce Marxism inbto a society has ended in mass extermination of large parts of the population.”

    Where was the “mass extermination” committed in Cuba?

    In Chile, there was “mass extermination” but it wasn’t committed by Allende’s Popular Unity government.

    Which “large parts of the population” of Venezuela have been exterminated by Hugo Chavez and his government?

    I would have thought that someone who teaches masters and PhD students might know these facts?

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