Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, The
Our education system is chained to the hold of a sinking capitalist ship. Is there any escape?
Our education system is chained to the hold of a sinking capitalist ship. Is there any escape?
The current neoliberal mutation of capitalism has evolved beyond the days when the wholesale exploitation of labor underwrote the world system’s expansion. While “normal” business profits plummet and theft-by-finance rises, capitalism now shifts into a mode of elimination that targets most of us—along with our environment—as waste products awaiting managed disposal.
The education system is caught in the throes of this eliminationism across a number of fronts: crushing student debt, impatience with student expression, the looting of vestigial public institutions and, finally, as coup de grâce, an abandonment of the historic ideal of universal education. “Education reform” is powerless against eliminationism and is at best a mirage that diverts oppositional energies. The very idea of education activism becomes a comforting fiction.
Educational institutions are strapped into the eliminationist project—the neoliberal endgame—in a way that admits no escape, even despite the heroic gestures of a few. The school systems that capitalism has built and directed over the last two centuries are fated to go down with the ship. It is rational therefore for educators to cultivate a certain pessimism. Should we despair? Why, yes, we should—but cheerfully, as confronting elimination, mortality, is after all our common fate. There is nothing and everything to do in order to prepare.
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A is for apocalypse David J. Blacker, The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, Zero Books, Winchester and Washington DC, 2013. 319 pp., £15.99 pb., 978 1 78099 578 6. Amidst the recent flood of lachrymose reports on the neoliberal assault upon education, this book stands out for its unflinching survey of the extent of the impending catastrophe and the astute way it gleefully sets about puncturing the few remaining life rafts. The consolation of Blacker’s philosophy? ‘[E]ducational activism does not matter and is a waste of time’, and ‘those within educational institutions have very little choice but to strap themselves in … for a continuation of a very scary and uncertain ride that probably ends in death’. This conclusion is based on an extension of what the book terms an eliminationist project inherent within our current phase of capitalism to the spe- cific domain of educational institutions too tightly bolted on to escape the same fate. It is extrapolated primarily from Marx’s hypothesis of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall within capitalist produc- tion: the long-term structural propensity to replace human labour costs with technological fixtures that constantly leads to a decline of surplus value in pro- duction, coupled with a crisis of underconsumption. This failure of ‘normal’ capitalism to durably turn profits has for a long time been masked by various counter-forces, now approaching their limits. With the automation of the manufacturing and services industries and rapid advance of globalized commu- nications and transport technologies, Blacker argues we have reached what is seen as a ‘tipping point’ beyond the reliance on human labour, especially in the global North. Under such circumstances, capital- ism undergoes a fundamental shift from an ‘era of exploitation’ to a desperate ‘era of elimination’, as increasing numbers of the precariously under- or unemployed are no longer required as a ‘reserve army’ to ensure competition for work keeps wages low but join the masses of a lumpenproletariat: ‘no longer seen as resource to be harnessed … but more a mere threat’ to be eliminated. Crucially, Blacker does not recognize any revo- lutionary necessity to the playing out of this neo- liberal endgame of capitalism, either in Marx or in his own prognostications: what is terminal for capitalism may well be terminal for humanity. This general situation impacts upon the specific analysisof educational eliminationism, defined as a ‘state of affairs in which elites no longer find it necessary to utilize mass schooling as a first link in the long chain of the process of extraction of workers’ surplus labour’ but instead ‘cut their losses and abandon public schooling altogether’. The introduction sug- gests this occurs ‘across a number of fronts: crushing student debt, impatience with student expression, the looting of vestigial public institutions, and … an abandonment of the historical ideal of universal education’, subsequently elaborated in three central chapters on ‘Educational Eliminationism’ subtitled ‘I. Student Debt’, ‘II. Student Voice’, and ‘III. Universal Schooling disassembled’. It is significant that there is no specific chapter on the third ‘front’ – the looting of public institutions – since it is here that the book’s eliminationist thesis becomes most ambiguous. Blacker suggests economic eliminationism impacts upon the domain of education either directly, as austerity-driven cuts to public services, or indirectly, as an increasingly haemorrhaging system enters a desperate ‘smash and grab’ raid on those sectors not yet leached of exchange-value, in order to leverage capital for investment elsewhere. The ruthless mar- ketization of education is therefore perceived as a ‘world historical act of desperation’ and ‘an intensely pathetic phase of the post-debt bubble’, equivalent to shaking down the sector for any loose change. Here, Blacker is forced to play down the possibility of what could instead be a period of massive educational expansionism, one that corresponds to a broader pedagogization of society and culture, such that not only educational institutions but also galleries, cor- porations and charities compete with each other over pedagogical outreach projects as a now fetishized ideology of education increases its stranglehold. If this is the case, it may well be that we will see a complex transformation of the primary functions of education rather than their elimination. If modern, public schooling instilled industrial discipline, pri- vatized education will be required to teach resil- ience towards increasingly precarious employment. But educational expansionism may in the shorter term also represent a solution to underemploy- ment, however unsustainable, as more students pay off higher fees through services connected to the Education Industry itself. Under such conditions it might even be that certain aspects of commodified education – far from becoming vocationalized, as many currently fear – assume autotelic form as a way of increasing its exchange value: l’éducation pour l’éducation (just as bourgeois culture’s marketability 52 R a d i c a L Ph i L o s o P h y 1 8 6 ( j u L /a u G 2 0 1 4) has been partially equated with its semblance of imperviousness to exchange value). When it focuses on student debt, the book sug- gests that ‘the financialized drive to commodify education ultimately resolves itself into a commodifi- cation of oneself ’. Here, the notion of eliminationism is no longer employed literally but corresponds to the metaphorical removal of ‘the human in human capital’, as what Blacker describes as ‘existentially indebted’ students (because the education they have purchased is inalienable) are tied with their whole being to a production process in which they increas- ingly resemble the constancy of fixed capital rather than the autonomous labourers of variable capital. This shift contradicts the book’s own rejection of what it calls the implicitly neo-Kantian framework of ‘canonical left critiques’ of education as something instrumentally dehumanizing. This kind of critique becomes redundant, Blacker argues, when ‘the new kind of non-recognition involves not merely reducing people to means but simply wishing them away’. The focus on student debt reverts to a similar kind of dehumanizing framework, but one that also implies that the expansion of student debt has to ensure some kind of relationship between education and a service to capitalist production which pays off those debts. In addition, although Blacker argues that capital- ism no longer needs skilled and semi-skilled labour because ‘the higher the tech, the dumber the worker can be and, ultimately, in the best case neoliberal scenario, phased out altogether where possible’, it is also possible to argue, as Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming have recently done in Dead Man Working (reviewed in RP 180, July/August 2013), that with the growth of service work and new forms of control an increasingly moribund and desperate system is forced to repurpose ‘living labour’ as it becomes increasingly reliant on human qualities such as social intelligence, imagination and resourceful initiative. Contra shifts towards automating call centres or relocating them abroad, for example, it is feasible that we will witness a new trend to rehumanize (and re-localize) the worker on the end of the line, encouraging them to be more charismatic, spontaneous and off-script in order to better sell their services. Although Cederström and Fleming focus on the new managerial techniques designed to harness human life, it is also possible that the social, creative and critical thinking skills of traditionally ‘non-vocational’ types of education – most obviously, the humanities – will be re-evaluated for this purpose, and not just in the worst-paid jobs: the UK’s minister of state for universities recently celebrated the fact that a third of the chief executives of our top FTSE companies have humanities degrees. In this context, what is most obviously being eliminated is public education. But this concept, as Blacker acknowledges, is itself a relatively recent historical anomaly and an ambiguous one at that (fee-charging ‘public schools’ in England were inde- pendent from both religious restrictions and the residential restrictions of local endowments and were therefore ‘public’ by virtue of being ‘private’ in the contemporary sense). At times he suggests that the current infrastructure of public education, largely dependent on cheap fossil fuels, will disappear (here technological experiments in ‘flipped classrooms’ and MOOCs reveal the advantages of ‘home schooling’ in the age of austerity), at other times that whilst ‘compulsory education as a mass phenomenon will … be eliminated’, educational eliminationism may actually involve the continuation and expansion of their infrastructure even as ‘these institutions lose any independence and direct autonomy’. As the young no longer require ‘education in any substantive sense’, the book suggests, so-called ‘educational institutions’ may transform into sites of mere surveillance and incarceration. At its core, then, the ‘falling rate of learning’ is about a conceptual elimination of educa- tion, and Blacker is right to insist that any future substantiation of such a claim depends upon the con- tinued capacity to philosophize what such a concept means, without – it should be added – essentializing any specific historical formation. The value of the book’s analysis throughout is the recognition of modern educational institutions as one of the counterforces that propped up capitalism; its only recourse to nostalgia comes with the recogni- tion that the exploitation which underwrites the traditional system may soon appear preferable to the eliminationism which replaces it. As a result, Blacker is structurally hemmed in to merely legalistic objec- tions to the eliminationism he identifies: student R a d i c a L Ph i L o s o P h y 1 8 6 ( j u L /a u G 2 0 1 4) 53 debt should be written off as illegitimate in accord- ance with the 1956 UN convention against ‘practices similar to slavery’, which includes ‘debt bondage’ of an unlimited or undefined nature and length, while moves to reduce the framework of free speech rights in schools are rejected as unreasonable in accordance with the foundational imperative of legal reasoning to stand by previous legal judgments. This nonethe- less permits Blacker to develop the most bracing and controversial part of his critique: not of capitalist eliminationism per se but of those educational activ- ists whose idealism provides ideological cover for the broader crisis at hand: ‘One constant thought is that we can educate ourselves out of the predicament, the more the better, primarily via an augmented and more equitable distribution of higher education.’ The vanity of educators has to be wounded, Blacker insists, because this heroic gesture is pointless: the education system of late capitalism isn’t fit to be patched up in this way. In the concluding chapter Blacker proffers a ‘com- partmentalized and political pessimism that is direct intra-institutionally’, philosophized via a collectively repurposed version of Stoic fatalism. This is loosely developed through the idea of a ‘counterfactual peda- gogy of negative visualization’, which opportunisti- cally builds upon increasingly prevalent experiences of actual loss – but also the trauma imagined via the zombie dramas and apocalypticism of popular culture – as the best kind of teachers to prepare for the worst and to cling to what remains of the best. In such experiences, he suggests, we collectively confront our own status as the ‘living dead’ of a surplus humanity to be eliminated. We might, however, draw a differ- ent lesson from popular culture’s current fascina- tion with zombism: as the expression of capitalism’s fear not of the human life that remains but of an inhuman and undead labour that is immune to edu- cational interpellation and neoliberal vampirism. The ‘survivalism’ the book counsels might therefore have unconsciously adopted capital’s humanist perspective rather than succumbing to the unfathomably new experience of the ‘walking dead’ that stalk the land. Ultimately, the catastrophic prophecy that ani- mates The Falling Rate of Learning is the pedagogi- cal equivalent of such negative visualization. It is a refreshing and effective tactic, making this one of the most readable and radical of recent books on the ‘crisis of education’. Apocalypticism is like comedy, however – all about timing. Even if we ulti- mately share Blacker’s dark vision of the capitalist endgame, we might have to prepare ourselves for the more worrying possibility that reports of education’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Matthew Charles ~ Matthew Charles, Radical Philosophy (July/August 2014)
The marketization of education is disturbing and dangerous. Intrinsic aims and values of education, such as civic engagement, personal development, self-awareness, cosmic wonder, etc., are quickly being reduced to mere development of human capital skills – human capital skills to be employed in capitalistic production, to maximize profits, within totalitarian workplace environments. David J. Blacker, a (Marxian) philosopher of education, argues in his new book The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, that recent developments are far worse than marketization. The essence of his argument is that millions of Americans are no longer needed in the economy. Their social labor has been technologically “eliminated.” Consequently, the need to educate this surplus population is no longer necessary. As such there is an attack on the schools themselves as being redundant and not “worth it” (196). Blacker contends the ultimate aim of neoliberal educational reforms is not merely privatization for market purposes, but “educational eliminationism” (12), and to disassemble any commitment to universal education for all (188-220). Educational elimination need not be the conscious intent of neoliberal educational reformers. But whether conscious intent or not, according to Blacker, “education as a mass phenomenon will, if present trends continue, be eliminated” (201). Education elimination is the logical outcome of the neoliberal capitalist structural dynamic (118-21). According to Blacker educational eliminationism is fourfold. First, as stated above is the elimination of mass education as a public good (188-220). Second, there is a falling rate of learning toward an elimination of learning (35, 226). Third, is the elimination of student “voices,” autonomy, and personal efficacy within the process of school (150-87). Fourth, is the elimination of personal autonomy and personal efficacy outside of schooling, following the mounting-up of student debt (122-49) and creation of a “new educational debt bondage” (138) to labor markets with low pay and poor working conditions. Blacker’s conclusion is highly pessimistic and cynical. According to Blacker, “education under advanced capitalism is too far gone” (232); the logical end is human and environmental elimination (240). The only thing left is individual critical pedagogies “here and there” (232), and a Pandora “Hope” that neoliberal processes will not run to completion in eliminating human beings and the environment (240). Blacker’s cynicism pivots on his failure to develop any potent sense of political agency. In the rest of this review, I will first argue that Blacker’s reliance on the analogy of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (TRPF) is interesting, but that he has misunderstood the political economy of Marx. This critique is hardly fatal, but it does suggest Blacker’s ‘falling rate of learning’ may be exaggerated. Rather than a TRPF/“falling-rate-of-learning” analogy, Marxian political economy may suggest a class-struggle/pedagogical-struggle analogy. Second, capitalism is more resilient than Blacker portrays. Third, Blacker is not critical enough of human capital theory as the essential paradigm of educational theory today. Fourth, Blacker is impressively successful in developing (an implicit) immanent critique of human capital theory in the context of the fact that there are not enough (well-paying) jobs for the academically credentialed (i.e. high school and college graduates) and the severity of the debt-peonage result of school loans. But he is less successful in explaining the intrinsic value that education potentially offers human beings. Blacker uses Marx’s notion of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (TRPF) to express two primary elements of his argument. First, there is a corresponding analogy between the TRPF and the falling rate of learning in schools. Second, the TRPF suggests to Blacker the impossibility of capitalism. He employs the TRPF to describe the structural dynamic of capitalism. Blacker underestimates the resilience of capitalism. The Althusserian tradition provides the philosophical argument of capitalism’s ability to metamorphose and self-perpetuate, while the Dobbian tradition provides the historical record of contingent “stages of capitalist development” and historical self-perpetuation. Blacker maintains that the logical outcome of the so-called “profit squeeze” on capitalists and financiers (10) is “economic eliminationism” (28) whereby millions of jobs and the need for millions of Americans in the labor force have been eliminated. The elimination of jobs further means the elimination of consumers (48) and the tendency toward underconsumptionism (81). Additionally, economic eliminationism refers to the elimination of investment opportunities for capitalism, hence overinvestment in narrow areas of finance and creation of a euphoric boom and bust economy (29-32) well captured by Hyman Minsky’s “financial instability hypothesis” (89-91). Educational stratification between tier-one schools and other schools further “mirrors” the economic inequality of capitalism (92), whereby “the rich have grown richer and moreover have increasingly insulated themselves against the rest of the population via a geographical stratification” (33). This all sets the stage for the correspondence between school and the society, albeit a “weak” correspondence (53). Just as Nazism yields Nazi schools, Communism communist schools, capitalism yields capitalistic human capital schools (99). This weak correspondence establishes the relationship between the economic eliminationism, of profits, jobs, consumers, and investment opportunities, and “the eliminationism we are now seeing in education” (28). The human capital motive of education has dominated schooling for several decades (196). Put simply there has been a “massive overaccumulation” of human capital skills, and neoliberal policy is aimed at no longer paying for this overaccumulation, hence the elimination of education (97). This is an interesting argument. However, there are some problems. Blacker leans on the TRPF too much. As a metaphor or analogy to understand happenings in education it seems powerful. There is a fall in the rate of learning, because human capital skill development as a motive to learn is highly stratified and at a structural level overaccumulated. The overaccumulation of credentials creates a discouragement and disinterest in schooling and has a negative impact on learning. However, Marxian political economy does not depend on the TRPF as explained by Blacker. At one point Blacker theorizes competitive capitalism and a constant profit squeeze (68-74). This is simply not Marx. Never does Marx theorize capitalism as competitive. This is because capitalism, according to Marx, is a class struggle, aimed at the production of surplus value, with a macro dynamic toward concentration and centralization, i.e. away from the competiveness of vulgar political economy and neoclassical economics. The production of surplus value and reproduction of capitalistic social relations depend on two crucial occurrences: the presence of exploitable workers with human capital skills and evading mass discontent. The point can be captured by analogy. Consider a slave master directly exploiting slave labor. The slave-master expropriates all the surplus product of the slaves. However, the masters must still worry about rebellion and losing their position as appropriators. An effective way to avoid this is to use surplus product as a means to circumvent rebellion. Masters may do this in numerous ways. For example, the slave-master may hire slave drivers, create a plantation militia or police force, and use other coercive means. The slave-master may create a patrimonial class of slaves, with various prized commodities as payment for loyalty. The slave master may also employ cultural forms such as modes of entrainment, religion, and education. These cultural forms could be geared ideologically for the slave to develop a consciousness that accepts the structural conditions, and/or that rebellion is immoral, unjust, and futile. This slave analogy allows us to point out a weakness in Blacker’s argument. Blacker finds his paradigm in Joan Robinson’s dictum: ‘the only thing worse than being exploited by a capitalist, is not being exploited at all’ (102). Blacker believes that it is toward ‘not-being-exploited-at-all’ that capitalism is evolving. This is an exaggeration. Exploitation is alive and well. There is no reason to assume that employment is disappearing. Capitalism is far more resilient. Blacker seems to believe that if workers are not producing a material product, they are not producing surplus value (e.g. 201, 203). However, there has been an explosion in service sectors jobs. There is no reason to believe that this will not continue in health services, finance, clerical work, retail sales, marketing and education. If there is a limit on the elimination of jobs, then consumerism can remain strong. Indeed Harry Braverman (1974) showed that monopoly capitalism had already begun a transformation from material production of manufacturing to service sector jobs. The postindustrial society theory of Daniel Bell (1976) also gets at similar phenomena, as do the “liquid modernity” theorists such as Zygmunt Bauman (2000). Thus, I have suggested that TRPF is not as problematic as is suggested by Blacker (TRPF does generate a particular and crucial macro-dynamic of boom and bust). Likewise I believe his arguments on job and consumer eliminationism are greatly exaggerated. Capitalism transforms to increase relative surplus value. The struggle then becomes the control of the workplace and the effect of the workplace on personal lives and personal well-being. If the correspondence theory that Blacker advocates is correct, we should find an analogous site of struggle within schools. Nonetheless, he is on stronger ground regarding the increased (Minskyian) instability of monopoly-finance capitalism and rising inequality. This makes a commitment to a “return on investment” from schooling precarious and volatile, but an urgently necessary risk for students to take. But these phenomena have less to do with TRPF and far more to do with the production of surplus value, reproduction of society, and class struggle. Much like our fictional slave driver, neoliberal policy makers will be anxious to create cultural forms that successfully reproduce society and minimize class struggle. Oligopolistic firms, both financial and nonfinancial, will be anxious that the production of surplus value continues and profits remain high. Indeed, Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis necessarily depends on profits being rather robust for some firms and industries. Thus, there is a particular tension between Blacker’s interpretation of TRPF and Minskyian instability. In neoliberal unstable monopoly-finance capitalism, institutions of education will remain crucial. First for the neoliberal ideology they are capable of generating. Second, they also function as a justification for inequality. Third, I suspect there may very well be an expansion of educational institutions as a way to absorb surplus labor and to create jobs (for example 2008 Presidential candidate Barack Obama had proposed a 100,000 person teacher corps). Blacker does eventually contend that “elimination” does not necessarily mean campuses are being physically shut down. “There may even be a building boom.” Rather “education elimination” refers to the loss of pedagogical sovereignty and directional autonomy of institutions of higher education (117, 198-9, 201). But making these statements 100-plus pages into the argument seems a rather radical amendment to the letter of the text in the first 100-plus pages. In the earlier pages, Blacker maintains that education is no longer needed because jobs no longer exist for the entire labor force. This is not the only confusion in Blacker’s argument. It is not education that is being eliminated by neoliberal capitalism, but the need for ‘schooling’ geared toward the mere development of human capital skills. Blacker simply has not been careful in differentiating the various aims of, and moments within, education. At the most surface level, education is schooling for human capital skills, and following Pierre Bourdieu (1977) this can be extended to include cultural and social capital. More generally still, this is what Bowles and Gintis (2011) called the ‘integration function.’ It is an important moment of education that today dominates the classroom, pedagogy, and educational policy. But there are other important pedagogical aims and moments within the educational experience, such as civic engagement and civic participation; personal development and empathy; self and social perspicacity; and cosmic wonder and awareness. Blacker’s falling rate of learning is on solid grounds concerning the decreased need for human capital skills. But there is an increased need for the other moments within the educational experience (these will be sites of pedagogical struggle within educational institutions). It is probably accurate to say that neoliberalism has little concern for these other pedagogical aims. But this is where there exists a potential site of resistance and struggle. Blacker’s argument against student debt is persuasive. He maintains that the language of the Brown v. Board of Education case provides the argument for education as a basic human right (141-2). With student debt now above the trillion dollar mark, it is time to make public education a public good. The costs of education would be paid by tax payers, and any debt incurred would be “transmogrified into social debts” (149). In short, Blacker convincingly argues that we need to abandon the neo-feudal debt-peonage-like result whereby students are required to borrow from a private bank to start a life (122-49). But neo-feudalism or not, the aim of education cannot be reduced to human capital skills. 23 percent of jobs in the U.S. pay above $50,000, more than 30 percent of the population graduates with a four-year college degree. The maths here is simple – there are not enough well-paying jobs to justify human capital schooling and the indebtedness for this impoverished schooling. We need to argue for a depth pedagogy that includes civic engagement, personal development, self and social perspicacity, and cosmic wonder and awareness. Pedagogical battles within the academy matter more than Blacker acknowledges (229). At the same time I fully agree with Blacker that the social assemblages outside education are the more urgent activist sites (228). There is no educational reform without labor market reform. Labor market reform is empty without transforming capitalistic production and totalitarian ruled workplaces. Capitalism is no alternative (CINA) (see, Despain 2013). Thus we can certainly accept Blacker hyperliberal educational strategies of affordability, inclusion, and augmentation of student voices (213-4). Likewise we must embrace Blacker’s more radical position that it is more important to change the political economy outside of education. To Blacker’s credit he never suggests merely creating new jobs or raising pay, and continuing under human capital theory pedagogy. This is false and violent toward social being. The emptiness of vocationalism and credentialism is rather easy to demonstrate in this neoliberal era. The lack of well-paying jobs means that student indebtedness is not sustainable. The site of struggle must thus turn pedagogical and fully develop the notion that capitalism is no alternative, CINA. 22 May 2014 ~ Hans G Despain, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
David Blacker makes a powerful case that in the present phase of capitalism, our rulers are abandoning the previous era’s principle of universal education David J. Blacker, The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books 2014), 308pp. If you have ever suspected that Michael Gove and flesh-eating zombies have something in common, David Blacker’s new study of neoliberalism supplies a plausible explanation. He suggests they are both symptoms of a decaying capitalist system that is now locked into a terminal doom loop. Gove personifies an ideological tendency within the ruling class that is determined to commodify and privatise any aspect of the public sector that is not nailed down. Popular culture’s obsession with zombies represents a subliminal anxiety within the elite about how to cope with the ever-expanding hordes of downtrodden and dispossessed who are the victims of this reactionary crusade (p.194). These are only two of a wide-ranging and subversive set of observations by the author that collectively provide a radical and compelling critique of current social policy in the US and Europe. Blacker’s specific focus is on education in the Western states but his contextualisation also includes hard-hitting analyses of political economy, environmental degradation and socialist strategy. The book is written in an erudite but witty style that leaves the reader with the clear and distinct impression that the next few decades will decide the fate of the human race. Blacker ominously warns us that the current global hegemony of the capitalist order presents most of our species with a grim choice: ‘we are subject to the harsh survivalist disjunction - we will have to kill it before it kills us’ (p.19). Blacker’s assessment of our ability to come out on the other side of this impending crisis is ultimately a negative one but he does not rule out the possibility of an undefined ‘existential event’ (p.13) delivering the promise of global liberation. His pessimism could have the effect of disabling an activist response to the challenges of our era, but it also serves as a useful antidote to the unthinking optimism that has sometimes blighted the rhetoric of the left in previous eras. Blacker provides a salutary warning that we may not have experienced the worst that capitalism can throw at us: ‘they could lead us down into something backwardly atavistic like neo-feudalism or something new or worse’ (p.58). His synthesis of political micro-analysis with millennial macro-analysis represents an innovative attempt to construct what he describes as a ‘Marxist eschatology’ (p.16). The latter term is traditionally associated with theological discussions about the nature of the end of the world; the biblical Book of Revelations being the best known example in the West. Blacker contends that the current economic crisis of the system, originating with the crash of 2008, means the term can now usefully be appropriated for Marxist analysis. The potential apocalypse in this context refers not to supernatural intervention but to the operation of the laws of motion of economic development. The title alludes to Marx’s classical explanation of capitalist crisis as being rooted in the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF). Blacker recognises that this theory is not universally accepted even within the ranks of contemporary Marxist economists but his advocacy of it is grounded on the basis of probability: ‘I will content myself with a weaker and more defensible claim than is advanced by some of the theory’s proponents: the TPRF matters and if it is not the reason capitalism is morphing into the death spiral neoliberal phase, it is surely a reason’ (p.24). Blacker provides an admirably lucid exposition of the TRPF (p.63). In Capital, Marx theorises that profit is rooted in the surplus value created in the process of production by the labour of the working class. The bourgeoisie constantly aspire to intensify the productivity of labour by investment in labour-saving technology, which, together with raw materials, forms constant capital as Marx terms it. The consequently increasing rates of productivity mean that correspondingly less labour - or variable capital (wages) - is required by the system. Marx’s core concept of the labour theory of value argues that only variable capital can generate value. Hence there exists a long-term tendency within capitalism for declining surplus value to be produced as a ratio of the total investment by the bourgeois class; the organic composition of capital is steadily rising, as Marx expresses it. As there is less surplus value being created it follows that the rate of profit must fall. Contrary to some of Marx’s critics, Blacker stresses that this pioneering formulation in no way contains a guarantee of the inevitable collapse of the capitalist system: ‘As Marx explains in the original articulation of the TPRF, massive counter forces such as monopolization may keep the gravitational downward pull on profits at bay almost indefinitely’ (p.76). The author further contends that the neoliberal project that has been initiated by the global capitalist class since the 1980s represents one of these countervailing strategies that can off-set the TRPF, potentially indefinitely. Blacker identifies four key components of this project: deploying globalisation as a means of undermining public sectors in the Northern hemisphere and slashing working conditions in the South; encouraging credit bubbles to delude ordinary citizens into thinking they have a stake in the system; promoting the financialisation of Western economies as a means of avoiding the rising organic composition; and fourthly, deploying military force against any regimes that might wish to defy this global order (pp.26-7). Blacker is dismissive of the liberal remedy that regulation of greedy individuals would be sufficient to curtail the excesses of neoliberalism. As he puts it, ‘decrying such individuals would be, as they say, like handing out speeding tickets at the Indianapolis 500. They speed because they have to’ (p.27). The penetration of this ideology into global political practice has resulted in the implicit adoption by elites of what Blacker calls ‘eliminationism’ (p.103). This neologism has been devised by some Holocaust scholars to define the attitude of the Nazi leadership to European Jewry in World War Two. Initially, the policy of the Third Reich was for the intensive exploitation of Jewish labour, but as the pressure of a militarised economy grew after 1939, the agenda was escalated towards physical extermination. This may seem to be a hyperbolic framework for analysing education policy in the twenty-first century but Blacker spells out the comparison. We are now in a situation ‘in which elites no longer find it necessary to utilize mass schooling as a first link in the long chain of the process of the extraction of workers’ surplus labour value. It has instead become easier for them to cut their losses and abandon public schooling altogether’ (p.103). As an American academic, Blacker identifies this agenda as the basis for the massive problem of student debt in that country. The US ruling class have arrived at the conclusion that educated and skilled graduates are surplus to requirements in the neoliberal phase of capitalism. Globalisation means that sector of the workforce can increasingly be supplied from overseas on a cheaper basis; and by saddling American students with crippling personal debt, the public funding of higher education can be shrunk significantly. Blacker notes that in 2012, US student debt was over $1 trillion, which was more than the total for credit card debt. He grimly states: ‘There is almost no escape from this iron cage that has been carefully refined by our banking overlords and puppet politicians ... a system of government-backed mass peonage, a kind of debt bondage with copious historical analogs’ (p.132). Having already alluded to the Nazi ‘endgame’, Blacker is here inviting us to draw a comparison between the predicament of students in the US today and another notorious example of state terror: slavery in the antebellum South. Half-jokingly, he posits that some form of Lincoln-style military occupation might be the only method of ending this economic bondage: ‘In the name of the UN, perhaps it is time for the blue helmets to roll in and to cordon off our universities … before they sell off still more unsuspecting 18-year olds into lives of unremitting debt bondage’ (p.133). Blacker’s focus is on the US but his highlighting of this dimension of higher education applies with equal force to the UK. The two major British political parties have both abandoned the postwar principle of free university tuition and as result students here find themselves saddled with debt of up to £9000 per year. The notion that this does not act as a deterrent to a sixteen-year-old considering higher education is ludicrous but is now the standard mantra of Gove and his ilk. An even more egregious example of this commodification of the system that Blacker could have referred to is the growing trend of students appealing to ‘sugar daddies’ to fund their study. The potential for exploitation in these cases does not need to be spelt out. The marketisation that is well underway in the American and British school sectors is also explored by Blacker. Teachers have become wearily accustomed to relentless pressure from above to pursue quantitative targets and conform to centralised orthodoxies of classroom practice. Both aspects of this neoliberal agenda are disguised as drives to raise standards but, in fact, have the combined effect of undermining the enjoyment of education, both for pupils and teachers. Blacker makes a powerful argument for the notion that this phase of capitalism has abandoned the principle of universal education that was a cornerstone of its previous incarnation. He notes how the dynamics of capitalist development in the West from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth required the cultivation of a workforce educated to a high level. This contextualisation of educational policy in the framework of wider socio-economic factors is one of the strengths of Blacker’s approach. As he puts it in a striking image: ‘schools are still an integral organ within capitalism’s respiratory system, rising and falling in rhythm with their encompassing chest cavity’ (p.192). He persuasively argues that as the system has now entered a new era of crisis it is rejecting its previous commitment to what in Britain was known as the comprehensive ideal. The ruling class now no longer needs a significant layer of educated professionals with a commitment to the public sector ethos. In the period after World War Two, that was necessary in order to reconstruct devastated social and economic structures. Blacker baldly states that the neoliberal version of capitalism also definitely no longer desires the working class to be encouraged to raise their expectations: ‘what capitalism gave, capitalism also hath taken away. Just as the era of universal schooling began with massive changes in the plate tectonics of capitalism, it is now beginning to recede in accord with further changes within those same tectonics’ (p.199). Gove's recent suggestions that writing lines, picking up litter and mopping floors be restored as appropriate school punishments would seem to indicate Blacker is right to detect this new mind-set among the elite. As a critique of education policy in contemporary capitalist states, Blacker’s analysis is powerful and stimulating. But there is a serious problem with his proposals to avert the impending calamity -fundamentally, that he doesn’t have any! The only strategy he can offer is that the forces of anti-capitalist resistance adopt a mentality that he describes as ‘Marxist fatalism’ (p.232). This amounts to little more than modest altruism within our personal and workplace groupings: ‘just try your best to be kind and at least to not be an asshole’ (p.229). This is not without merit as an ethical injunction, especially as we are frequently surrounded by individuals who are apparently incapable of understanding it. But as a means of averting the slide towards the apocalypse it is pitifully inadequate. Even worse than this tepid quietism, Blacker dismisses the notion that educators can play any role in the transformative wave of opposition he clearly wishes to see: ‘education activism does not matter and is a waste of time’ (p.223). The author has usefully reminded us of the constraints capitalism places on the education process but he underestimates the ability of teachers and students to spark significant resistance within the current system. The student protests in the UK in 2010, the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012, and the role of NUT activists in the UK this year are just the most recent examples of the ability of committed sections of the left to go far beyond Blacker’s ‘compartmentalized pessimism’ (p.245) and fight for an ‘existential event’, or what we might less euphemistically call ‘the revolution’. Tags:Economic CrisisEducationFalling Rate Of ProfitGoveMarketisationNeoliberalismNUTRuling Class - See more at: http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/articles/book-reviews/17232-the-falling-rate-of-learning-and-the-neoliberal-endgame?tmpl=component&print=1&layout=default&page=#sthash.tYeAMb6R.dpuf ~ Sean Ledwith, counterfire.org
Extractive Institutions David Blacker, The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame Zero Books, 319pp, £15.99, ISBN 9781780995786 reviewed by Calum Watt Last November saw the coalition government privatise almost £900 million of student debt. The debt comprised loans taken out during the 1990s, and so represents only a small portion of the total value of student loans. This total is estimated at £40 billion, all of which the government has indicated it plans to sell off. If you think this is just another innocuous step in the government’s project of ‘reducing the deficit’, The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame may be the book to disabuse you of the idea. David J. Blacker is a philosopher of education whose thesis goes far beyond the regular complaint that universities and schools are becoming increasingly marketised. Marketisation is a plain fact, as anyone who has recently written a funding application will be aware. But by taking a broadly Marxist view, Blacker forecasts a longer-term and much more pernicious change. It is not merely that we are seeing a change in the understanding of the purpose of education (that education is becoming increasingly transactional, that students consider themselves as consumers and their courses as commodities), but that the very possibility of education is changing. The book’s title refers to the concept that the rate of profit has a tendency to fall, a mainstay in Marxist economics. Marx’s abstract economic point is not, however, the main issue here: what Blacker calls the falling rate of learning is the political logic whereby when there is less need for labour (due to the globalised labour market, technological change and overpopulation), there is correspondingly less need for education. As a result, public educational institutions become subject to the same privatisation as other former public assets, such as healthcare, prisons and the post office. They become ‘extractive institutions’, a term that Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson coined in their 2012 bestseller Why Nations Fail, and defined as institutions which ‘extract income and wealth from one subset of society to benefit a different subset’ — that different subset typically being shareholders and the wealthy elite. Privatisation is not, as its proponents like to claim, about competition or value for money. Where does that leave students? The example of student loans in Britain gives an ominous indication of just exactly where. The government claims that repayment terms will not be retrospectively altered by the private companies buying the debt, but given that the recent history of higher education reform has consisted of a series of U-turns and broken promises one would be wise to treat this with scepticism, if not outright incredulity. For how else can the debt possibly be profitable to these companies? Blacker offers a dystopian vision of ‘a new era of debt servitude, even serfdom, where the very future possibilities of the young become existential carrion for the insatiably gluttonous financialised “vulture” capitals’. In a classic Master-Slave reversal, it is less that you own your education than that it owns you. Blacker concludes that ‘the young stare down the barrel of a neo-feudal future that looks, at best, bleak and disheartening.’ And it gets worse. According to Blacker, our historical moment is one in which the bulk of the population is no longer regarded as a resource to be exploited through labour (bad as that might have been), but as a surplus to be disposed of. This is perhaps the most contentious aspect of Blacker’s thesis: the notion of ‘educational eliminationism’. Appropriating the latter word from the work of Holocaust scholars such as Daniel Goldhagen, Blacker provocatively compares the ‘moral structure’ in which neoliberalism effectively writes off swathes of the young as surplus to contemporary capitalist requirement (and therefore not worth investing in) to the Nazi policy following the Wannsee Conference of 1942, in which Jews were no longer to be exploited as slaves before being murdered in concentration camps, but simply subjected to the most direct extermination possible. This kind of rhetoric — which is typical of the book as a whole — may seem extreme and offensive, but its purpose is precisely to be alarming and to challenge the narrative which the author believes too many have accepted at face value — that austerity is necessary, that we are all in it together, and so on. The point of this particular analogy, it is stressed, is not that the youth are going to be eradicated — that would be obscene — but that they have been effectively written off vis-à-vis the ruling class. Blacker would doubtless consider the Conservatives’ plans to deny housing benefit to unemployed under-25s, at a time of record youth unemployment, as exemplary of the ideological construction of the young as disposable. In many ways this is the kind of work a rightwing commentator who doesn’t read Marxist books might imagine a Marxist book to be — hyperbolic, denunciatory, apocalyptic. In fact, Blacker’s heavily fatalistic tone is what distinguishes The Falling Rate of Learning from even the more extreme contemporary leftist critiques. The ‘endgame’ of the title really is intended to suggest that neoliberalism is driving the world to terminal ruin — neoliberalism is a ‘thanatology’, and with regard to it we are collectively in a life or death situation. The book is nominally a work on the state of education in the Western world, but a recurring argument is that the damage being done to the environment is such that soon there might not be a world left. The problem is the result of systemic properties of the global neoliberal operation and, barring an unlikely overthrow of capitalism, looks irreversible. Blacker’s Marx is one ‘tempered with the Dantean ability to counsel despair’. The process is too far gone and there is little — to bring us back to universities — that academics can do to stop it; as he slightly disarmingly puts it, ‘education activism does not matter and is a waste of time’. His analogy is with prisons: prison guards may have the potential to achieve minor changes, but not the systemic overhaul required. Education is fated to go down in this way and efforts are better directed outside institutions — as the author says, ‘better an unofficial blog or an occupy protest than a speech at a faculty meeting or a petition to an administrator’. This is all to say that what is missing from the sloganeering of the anti-capitalist left is a dose of stoicism. The thought of Seneca, rather than of any Marxist, is invoked in the final chapter of the book. While something unexpected and game-changing may come about, we had best prepare for the coming storm and salvage what we can. Blacker is a professor at the University of Delaware and his book speaks primarily to the American experience. If you want to read a more conservative critical account of marketisation within the context of British universities, I recommend Stefan Collini’s recent essay in the London Review of Books (‘Sold Out’, 24 October 2013). But given that our education system seems to be heading in a similar direction to that of the US — and Blacker’s references to the ‘increasingly Gradgrindian UK’ are not reassuring — The Falling Rate of Learning ought to be read as a warning of things to come. Buy this book from Blackwell's. Calum Watt is a PhD researcher with the department of film studies at King's College London. ~ Calum Watt, Review31
School’s Out David J. Blacker: The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame. Zero Books £15.99. Remember Tony Blair and his ‘Education, education, education’? That was how he set out his priorities in 1997, supposedly as a way of improving people’s lives and also making British capitalism more efficient and competitive. But with the recession leading to cuts to education budgets, things have not quite worked out that way. David Blacker’s title is a nod to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the view that, as technological progress continues, the proportion of constant capital (machines, buildings, etc) to variable capital (paid out in wages) will rise – see www.worldsocialism.org/articles/introduction_to_marxian_economics2.php. But as it is only labour that produces surplus value and so profit, it follows that the rate of profit (profit as a proportion of total capital) will fall. However, there are so many counteracting forces that this is at most a tendency. One consequence of technological progress, though, is a reduced demand for labour power, including educated labour power. Hence, according to Blacker, not just increases in unemployment and part-time jobs but ‘an abandonment of the ideal of the universal distribution of education’, or ‘the falling rate of learning’. His book has a mainly US focus but the general points are more widely applicable. One response has been to see education as itself a source of profit, with widespread privatisation. Another has been to transfer much of the cost of higher education to students/workers themselves, by means of loans and debt. US student debt is now well over $1 trillion, and debts pursue many workers throughout their lives, since (unlike with credit cards) education debt is not discharged by personal bankruptcy. But if attending college and being weighed down by debt is an unpleasant prospect, not gaining a degree is even worse, as it can lead at best to a minimum-wage job (‘the fear of McDonalds’). Blacker classes medical bills together with educational loans as ‘existential debt’, which can haunt people for decades. They should, he suggests, be a focus for protest, part of a campaign for free higher state education. At the same time, though, he argues that educational activism is a waste of time, on the grounds that reforming schools will not usher in serious social and political reforms. It is certainly true that schools and colleges essentially reflect the society around them, and that it is only a revolution in the way society is organised that will lead to proper changes in the function and content of education. PB ~ PB, Socialist Standard
Intellectual Affairs Forgive Us Our Debts February 5, 2014 By Scott McLemee Two great models of eloquence in the English language are The Book of Common Prayer and the translation of the Bible usually called the King James Version. A memorable passage that appears in both volumes crossed my mind while thinking about a couple of recent works of social criticism. (It also happens that Princeton University Press recently brought out The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography by Alan Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor University, which a couple of readers have highly recommended.) The text in question appears a couple of times in the New Testament as part of what's usually called "the Lord's Prayer." The Book of Common Prayer, the older of the two volumes, renders one line of the prayer as "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." The KJV rendering says, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." To my ear, "trespasses" works better rhythmically, and it expresses the notion of "sin" or "offense" in a slightly more elegant manner. By contrast, "debt" or "debtor" expresses the same thought in a blunt and harsh way, and even conjures the old cartoon image of St. Peter recording good and evil deeds in a big ledger at the gates of heaven. Puzzled by the contrast, I consulted an extremely literal translation by J.N. Darby -- a Victorian Biblical scholar of uncompromising severity -- who suggests that "debt" is indeed what the original text says. Around the time Darby was working on his translation, Friedrich Nietzsche fleshed out an argument about the interrelationship among guilt, debt, and memory. Bringing up an atheist philosopher pretty well guarantees someone is now offended. But The Genealogy of Morals spells out in bleak and somewhat lurid terms a point left implicit in the prayer: The debtor is at the mercy of the creditor, who has the right (or at least the power) to inflict suffering -- even bloody revenge -- when payment is not made. Whatever else it may signify, the brutal connotations of "debt" make forgiveness sound much more demanding and consequential than "trespass" would imply. (Awkward recollection: Learning the prayer as a little kid, I pictured God being unhappy that people were ignoring a sign on His lawn.) Homo economicus never spent all that much time on moral accounting. But at least the old bourgeois virtues included restraint and a residual belief that self-interest was justified insofar as it served a larger good. The issues that concern Andrew Ross in his new book Creditocracy (discussed in last week's column) unfold in a world where debt itself is a kind of demigod, answerable to no higher power of any kind -- and certainly not to the state. As the example of credit-default swaps on subprime mortgages in the go-go '00s made clear, the alchemists of finance are able to create profitable investment opportunities out of the risk (i.e., the degree of likelihood) of non-repayment -- making possible the creation of enormous fortunes from loans that cannot be repaid, at least not in full. That is but one link in a complex chain of debt-creation. Should the speculative bubble burst, the job of preventing economic meltdown falls to the government (which already has its own deficits, of course) at whatever risk to allocations for education, infrastructure, etc. Add to it an average household debt that, Ross notes, grew from 43 percent of gross domestic product in 1980 to 97 percent in 2008 -- across three decades of stagnating wages. Throughout that period, 60 percent of income gains went to the country's wealthiest 1 percent -- a trend that changed dramatically when the economic crisis hit. Since then, 95 percent of income gains have gone to that debt-creating (if not job-creating) sliver. David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy of education and legal studies at the University of Delaware, characterizes the situation with a simple image in The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books): "Imagine a casino in which you play with the house money and if you win you get to keep all the winnings to yourself, whereas if you lose, the house covers your bets. The literally astronomical public sums required to continue this arrangement for the minutest percentage of the population is the proximal cause of the squeeze on public resources. Schoolchildren, the poor, the sick, the disabled, the elderly etc., must all sacrifice so elites no longer have to undergo the risks that are officially supposed to be inherent in their role as fearless capitalist risk-takers. ..." But genuine competition and risk are reserved "for small businesses and other little people like private and public sector employees." Ross responds to the debt-driven status quo by challenging a whole series of moral reflexes that have traditionally accompanied debt: the feelings of obligation and culpability, of shame and implied weakness, that the prayer rendered in the King James translation take as a given. When access to socially necessary goods (particularly higher education) is restricted or undermined by an economy making debt all but inescapable for countless people, someone ought to feel guilty when students default on their loans -- just not the students themselves. The next step is to call for large-scale fiscal disobedience: a social movement of millions of people pledging to default on their student loans. On the far side of that and other radical confrontations with the debt machine, Ross conceives the possibility of morally sound, humanely responsible systems of finance, based on communitarian social forms. Not utopia, perhaps, but a long way from here. Massive default is a strategy I find it easier to admire, or at least to daydream about, than to recommend. It is not impossible that a million people might make such a pledge. Carrying out the action is another matter -- and if only a fraction see it through, the result is bound to be martyrdom of an uninspiring and ineffectual kind. In any case, I have no student debt to default on in solidarity, and calling for others to do so would be a case of telling them, "Let's you and him go fight." Like Creditocracy, David Blacker's book was written in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. But where Ross occasionally sounds like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon -- with his vision of a mutualist society of small producers, exchanging goods and services with a new form of money that doesn't promote inequality -- Blacker thinks along much more classically Marxist lines. The predatory forms of financial speculation that led to the crisis five years ago will not be regulated out of existence, nor are they deviations or tumors growing on a fundamentally healthy economy. The casino will keep rewarding the high rollers when they win and shaking the rest of society down when they lose. Such investment in manufacture as continues to be made will need workers with skills and the capacity to adapt to technological developments -- but ever fewer of them. Most of the population will be an object for social control, rather than Schooling proper. At some level most of us sense this already, making the whole notion of "education as investment in the future" an ever more problematic principle. Blacker has written probably the gloomiest book I have read in years, but in some ways it seems like a practical one. He is not a survivalist. He thinks pedagogy still has a role, provided it's geared to understanding the dire probabilities and finding ways to respond to them. It helps that Blacker is a sharp and forceful writer, giving his analysis something of the vividness and urgency of an Old Testament prophet delivering warnings that nobody really wants to hear. Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/02/05/essay-creditocracy-andrew-ross-and-falling-rate-learning-and-neoliberal-endgame#ixzz32utquVsL Inside Higher Ed ~ Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed
The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame by David Blacker Zero Books 4.5 stars James Ash It's been a bad few decades for the reputation of Karl Marx, but according to US philosopher David Blacker, the free-market cheerleaders who applauded the death of communism spoke too soon. In this book, he argues that capitalism is now in its death throes and that Marx saw this coming all along. But Blacker says no-one should get too exultant about this, because capitalism's "murder-suicide" is likely to take civilisation down with it. The author is no Marxist, but he credits Marx with identifying capitalism's Achilles' heel: the long-term tendency for profits to decline. This forces it to mutate constantly, into forms sometimes catastrophic for society, as in its latest incarnation, neoliberalism. As Blacker argues in this brilliant, searing broadside, neoliberalism's toxic mix of austerity, offshoring, financialisation, debt and inequality fell flat on its face in 2008, but refused to stay down. It continues on, zombie-like, as "an all-out assault on anything in the system that might still have a little exchange value, a little liquidity with which to releverage. One might term this the 'searching under the couch cushions for loose change' phase of late capitalism". One of these sofa cushions is the mass educational system. Publicly funded, it is a tempting target for systematic looting under the aegis of "privatisation". Even worse for the educational system, capitalism no longer needs it. Per Blacker, mass education only exists because it served big business in the industrial era: an economy that made things needed lots of (minimally) educated workers to run the machines. But those days are gone. Turning Marx on his head, he argues that the only thing worse than being exploited by capitalism is not being exploited - to be surplus to its requirements. This is already the fate of billions in the "long-ago enclosed and dispossessed global South", and one that will be shared by most of the next generation in the rich countries. Blacker argues that in the merciless logic of neoliberalism, this surplus population doesn't need traditional education. Public "schools" will probably continue to exist, but they will resemble minimum-security prisons - that is, if post-industrial civilisation survives at all. He foresees some combination of climate change, peak energy and debt-fuelled financial collapse leading to a complete breakdown, and a subsequent "reshuffle of the deck". Whatever follows may be an improvement for the survivors, or it may not, Blacker writes - but this sort of catastrophic change is more plausible than anything envisioned by the Occupy movement, however much he applauds its spirit. ~ James Ash, South China Morning Post
The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, by David J. Blacker 6 FEBRUARY 2014 Gerald Taylor Aiken concurs with a call to protect higher education as a universal and public good “Neoliberalism of the academy”: in the UK, this ubiquitous phrase takes in the multimillion-pound student loan book sell-off, the introduction of £9,000-a-year tuition fees, the silencing of student dissent on campus, the research excellence framework and the research assessment exercise, citation indexes and even the increasing focus on graduate employability. Here, US academic David Blacker charts what neoliberalism means for education, arguing that its chief impact lies not in the restructuring of the economic conditions for universities, but in its drive to eliminate education as a universal and public good. This argument is drawn by analogy from Karl Marx’s “tendency of the rate of profit to fall”, essentially the way that capitalism, through the longue durée of technological innovation, investment and productivity gains, begins to bleed profits. Blacker has in his sights the confusing of education with financial investment – by either individuals or society – in the gaining of skills demanded by the job market. Countries desire a labour force with training in literacy, numeracy and IT – and need science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates in particular – in order to compete globally. Yet there are now fewer jobs going, and poorer ones at that – less fulfilling, less well paid, more insecure – which disproves the Clintonian lie that if they work hard and play by the rules, graduates will “get on”. The austerity marketplace seeks graduates with a wholly different set of skills than the Keynesian one but, crucially, it also wants fewer of them. This, then, is the falling rate of learning. The usefulness for industry of universal public education, emerging hand-in-glove with industrial society and enfranchisement from the late 18th century, has gone. The rewards for state and business of cutting back on such education provision, in an age of austerity, are overwhelmingly appealing – hence Blacker’s characterisation of the neoliberal endgame for education. Its Marxist perspective means the book offers a structuralist reading of the changes that education is undergoing in the Western world. Blacker allows room for the committed, innovative educator (as you, reader, will no doubt be), capable of motivating students, transforming life chances and inspiring a lifelong love of learning. Yet he sees the landscape shifting to one in which elites are raising the drawbridge (financially if not literally) on funding for public education. He draws out three areas where this occurs: eye-watering levels of student debt, curbs on freedom of speech and the increasing differentiation in formerly universal education provision. Although the book is written from an American perspective and draws on US examples, many British analogies will be apparent. This is a punchy, polemical book and good knockabout stuff, excoriating the individual culpability of greedy bankers and, in our sector, the CEO-style university leaders awarded inflation-busting pay rises. Blacker gleefully calls for the jailing of bankers for criminality, but the merit in his argument lies in its far deeper analysis of the “ailing production process”. For all the moral probity on university committees, for all the radical transformative pedagogy taught in lecture and seminar rooms, there remain structural economic and ideological forces directing the play from behind the scenes. Blacker calls our universities the “cold impersonal system”, the “machine”. This is a book that is not only unsparing but a rousing call to arms. It could be a vital tool in understanding the processes under way in UK higher education, namely those that Stefan Collini recently accused of turning “first-rate universities into third-rate companies”. The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame By David J. Blacker Zero Books, 319pp, £15.99 and £6.99 ISBN 9781780995786 and 5793 (e-book) Published 13 December 2013 ~ Gerald Taylor Aiken, Times Higher Education
Feature and author interview on THE FALLING RATE OF LEARNING AND THE NEOLIBERAL ENDGAME [n.b.: 1K FB shares, 400 twitter mentions in 24 hrs.; rising in amazon bestseller lists in many categories, e.g., #2 in Democracy] 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 June 8, 2014 by Eric Levitz 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 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." [emphasis added] 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. [emphasis added] 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 decade. President 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. [emphasis added] 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. More Commentaries ~ Eric Levitz, Salon.com
While it is no surprise that casino capitalism is in crisis and is spurring protests all over the world, few theorists connect the dots and analyze how this crisis moves through and is affected by a range of institutions. David Blacker has written a superb book in which matters of education, agency, economic justice and collective struggle come alive in both a language of critique and possibility. There will be no endgame to neoliberalism without critically thinking subjects who fight back collectively. This is the book that should be read to create the formative culture that makes such a struggle possible. ~ Henry A. Giroux, author, America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth, Professor of Communication Studies, McMaster University
David Blacker provides a mordantly clear-eyed assessment of our predicament. He asks hard questions, in the tradition of our best gadflies, and reveals even harder truths, doing us and our 'democracy' (such as it is) a great potential service. Read rightly, Blacker's book, far from making you want to bury your head in the sand even deeper, will inspire you to shake yourself out of your slumber and do your part to arrest this pernicious development. We ignore his important work at our own peril. ~ Christopher Phillips, author, Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy, Senior Writing Fellow, University of Pennsylvania
Invigorating pessimism. ~ Mark Fisher, author, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths, University of London
David Blacker’s book should be required reading for everyone marching circles in schools and universities. ~ Douglas Lain, author, Billy Moon: 1968 and host of the Diet Soap Podcast
The notion that widespread educational attainment is the key to widespread prosperity has long been a pillar of the dominant ideology. David Blacker’s central—and centrally important—insight is that the Great Recession has made this notion (which was always dubious) hopelessly anachronistic. When so many people have become superfluous to the capitalist system--mass joblessness persists four years after the recession officially ended--what have also become superfluous are these people’s skills, the schools that educate them, and the spending that funds the schools. And a capitalism mired in crisis just isn’t a capitalism that can afford to pay for what it doesn’t need. But isn’t this only a temporary situation? Drawing on Karl Marx’s falling-rate-of-profit theory and his associated theory of relative surplus (superfluous) population, Blacker warns that it may well be permanent and he urges us to face this prospect soberly and respond accordingly. ~ Andrew Kliman, author, The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession, Professor of Economics, Pace University