The Eliminative Turn in Education: An Interview with David Blacker

David Blacker studied at the University of Texas and holds degrees in philosophy and education from the University of Illinois.  He is currently Professor of philosophy of education and Director of Legal Studies at the University of Delaware (USA).  His books include Dying to Teach:  The Educator’s Search for Immortality (Columbia University Teachers College), Democratic Education Stretched Thin:  How Complexity Challenges a Liberal Ideal (SUNY), a US-state specific book series on law, ethics and education for education students.  His most recent book is The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books, forthcoming this December).  His is now working on a project concerning Spinoza and the idea of permaculture.  Before becoming corrupted by the comforts of academia, he worked at the (sadly) now-defunct Guardian newspaper (“an Independent Radical Newsweekly”) in New York City.   

C. Derick Varn: What has led to both the increase in credentialization in higher education and the elimination of much of the funding of higher ed at the same time? And why is the political economy of education so little discussed directly?

David Blacker: These questions admit several layers of response, concentric causal circles converging on the contemporary trends. Let me take the funding question first. In the United States, the immediate cause of the funding crisis in higher education, particularly public higher education, is the decades-’long withdrawal of the historic commitment to these institutions by state and local governments. In this sense, U.S. higher education has been a leading edge of austerity avant la lettre, well before opposition to “austerity” became a rallying cry of dissent. A generation or two ago, our leading public universities received most of their operating funds from the public coffers. Now at the marquee universities, the level of such funding has dwindled to the single digits. For example, the University of Virginia—long a symbol of American public education because of its Jeffersonian origins—now receives around 6% of its budget via public funds. A mere 6%! At this point it is fair to ask, in what sense are our “public universities” actually public anymore?

A second layer of answer to the funding question has to do with shifting policy justifications for state support of education that reflect general movements in ideology. While one must be careful to guard against a narrative of decline that implies some kind of golden age of public spiritedness, there was a certain degree of liberal idealism present in the nineteenth-century founding of American public universities qua “land grant” institutions charged with contributing to the public good. There has at times been a strong sense that there is a collective interest in maintaining a strong network of such institutions, a palpable sense that everyone benefits from them. Now, however, a relatively narrow and crabbed economism holds sway that fails to honor the “public good” nature of these institutions and instead regards them mainly as private benefits exclusive to the individuals involved in them. At a collective level they are at best “good for business” and economic development; in particular their educational side is seen as a pipeline for a shrinking elite corporate workforce. These expensive institutions are regarded as justified insofar as they add value to “human capital” for employers and also as in effect off-site research and development centers for corporations, particularly those in the high tech sectors. So at the aggregate level, education is viewed as a literal “investment.”

In addition to this, what has become more clear is that higher education (and education generally) is more and more justified at the individual level also as an “investment,” in this case as a means for improving the life chances of individuals—such that they are commonly willing to undergo staggering amounts of debt on the gamble that it will pay off in the long run. Colleges have in fact become accustomed to making this argument to prospective students and the public at large, quickly trotting out statistics for the higher incomes enjoyed by college grads over a lifetime, etc. What is new here is not the conception of human capital or the idea that one might “get ahead” via one’s education. What is new is the radical reduction of education’s value to exchange value. From this point of view, today’s austerity is eminently justified. Why should I, as a taxpayer, have to fund some kid’s investment in him or herself, where the payoff for that investment will accrue to that person and not anyone else? In short, college is seen as a pay-to-play scheme having to do with private goods rather than anything having to do with the public weal, the latter secured, as we know, by the all-powerful invisible hand. Armed with this mentality, it’s much easier for politicians to continue cutting the state funding for these erstwhile public goods. Why not just have the “users” pay for it instead? They’re the ones who will be receiving the benefits.

A still wider circle of causation has to do, of course, with the working of capitalism itself. In my view—and this is in large part what my new book, The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, is about—we are entering an era of what might be termed “post-exploitation,” a successor to the more “all hands on deck” labor needs of our grandparents’ capitalism. Due to tectonic forces having to do with the interplay of technological development and the role of labor therein—and here I lean on “falling rate of profit” economists such as Andrew Kliman and Guglielmo Carchedi—we are entering a period where fewer workers are needed, including the skilled and educated type that constitute what was once known as “the middle class,” especially in the developed economies. The British economist Joan Robinson has a famous quip where she says in effect that the only thing worse than being exploited by the capitalists is not being exploited by them. This dryly humorous observation is a touchstone for my analysis. With regard to the question of education funding, these tectonic economic processes can be observed through a symptomology that includes an increased willingness on the part of elites to abandon the era-defining projects of universal K-12 education and the expansion of higher education to previously untutored sectors of the population. We are entering a period of contraction in this regard. In contrast to the Clintonian lie that those who ‘“work hard and play by the rules”’ will enjoy a secure economic position, we now see that not only is there no guarantee that success at college will land one a good job, but that one might even be worse off than if one had never gone, in the sense that having to take a menial service job with massive education debt is worse than having to take a menial service job without debt. At least with the former one is at 0 and not -0.

The point is that in an economic environment where there are fewer and fewer places, higher education—even in the above narrow economistic sense—is viewed simply as waste, as a luxury that we as a society can no longer afford. At best it is a purely private good that should be paid for by those who are receiving the good and at worst it is not even a good private investment. Given that set of assumptions, austerity makes perfect sense. There should be much more of it, in fact, as when one sees libertarians arguing for the elimination of student loans as market distorters that allow today’s bloated college to continue on oblivious to the market signals around them.

This is the background against which to view the rise of credentialism. Credentialism, of course, has always been with us. When education is understood more completely as a private good, the credential becomes the key factor, what is supposed to be a marker of whatever educational experience reduced to its exchange value qua commodity. In my book’s chapter on student debt, I argue that the credential actually achieves a preeminence over the educational experiences themselves, that is, any changes internal to the student him or herself. Not only because it is saleable and what makes one’s (educated) labor “marketable,” as we say, but because in an environment of personal “investment”—a.k.a. personal debt—it is that part of one’s education that can be securitized. It is difficult to imagine securitizing the educational experiences themselves. Unlike with a house or a car—i.e., a securitized debt—one cannot “return” one’s education when one has defaulted on the loan.

One might imagine darkly comic scenarios, akin to the scene about unwilling organ donors in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life , where the defaulter’s college memories are expunged through some sort of high tech neuro-vivisection! But absent this sci-fi scenario, or perhaps I should say until it come to pass, the only part of one’s education that could actually be taken away after it is completed would be the credential. One sees a mild version of this when schools refuse to release student transcripts if they owe something. Countless U.S. college graduates have had this annoying experience of trying to get their transcripts sent somewhere only to be informed that they must clear up some debt first. (In my case, it was parking tickets!) The point here is that the credential, qua securitization of the education, provides a kind of debt handle that makes it graspable and manipulable by creditors. If ex hypothesi, the thing we care about in our educations is the credential it provides for us on the labor market, then this has the nice side effect for creditors (and the government as well—a slightly different but related story) of allowing a much higher degree of social control. Through the alchemy of the financialized transformation of one’s education from a set of experiences that cannot be taken away into a credential-commodity that most certainly can, education is finally transformed into a product like any other, different perhaps only in how long it takes to complete the purchase and of course its vast expense.

As student indebtedness grows—and it now surpasses personal credit card debt, by most accounts passing the $1 trillion threshold last year—one can predict that the credential will only become more prominent as a behavioral lever to help control an increasingly economically placeless and hence restive over-educated workforce. Concomitantly, we can also expect a decreasing commitment to the actual experience of education on the part of the purveyors of this commodity, viz., the colleges themselves. There will be increasing efforts to make higher education more “flexible” and “convenient,” etc. What somehow does not change is the cost, which only grows. Pay to play. Ideally, really, the credential should just be sold on the open marketplace, like military officer commissions to the sons of the aristocracy in the armies of yesteryear. There is, in fact, an increasing disconnect between any educated quality one possesses and the actual requirements of whatever job. (Charles Hugh Smith has a striking recent discussion of this phenomenon available here).The credential becomes more purely a symbol, a marker of class position and little else.

I agree with your premise that the political economy of education tends to be little discussed, except perhaps for a certain level of constant background noise of “taxpayer” complaint about high costs. This too should be seen as a symptom having to do with various ideological scripts. These have a long history. John Marsh, in his compelling book Class Dismissed, argues that education is what allows Americans “to sleep at night.” What he means is that it performs a key role in legitimating our alleged meritocracy by underwriting the widespread belief that it provides a vehicle for “equal opportunity” toward the American dream of social mobility on the part of those who are so inclined, the talented and hard-working, etc. In short, it allows us to focus not on actually existing inequalities, i.e., unequal distributive outcomes, but rather on an idyll of an equality of starting positions, “level playing fields,” and the like. If the playing field is level and otherwise fair, and one team wins a lopsided victory, well, this may be regrettable for the losing team, but no matter how painful for the losers, the situation is legitimate. Education, long seen as a cure-all for social ills by both left and right alike in U.S. history, is a primary mechanism whereby popular eyes can be turned from such inconvenient truths as the existence of class struggle and the social reproduction of elite dominion where, for example, the incompetent children of elites still, somehow, when all is said and done, tend to maintain their privilege in the alleged meritocracy.

George W. Bush is a wonderful example of this, where one thinks of Ann Richards’s memorable line that he was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. (For more on this theme, see MSNBC/Nation pundit Chris Hayes’s illuminating Twilight of the Elites.) Americans have an acute need to view their economic “game” as fair and its outcomes as justified. One suspects this need has religious roots of some kind, perhaps a conception of Providence or some sort of theodicy where it all is for the best and the virtuous prosper and those lacking in virtue suffer appropriately. God couldn’t have it any other way: America as City on a Hill and all of that. In more sublunary terms, in the words of the influential nineteenth-century Massachusetts educationist Horace Mann, education provides the great “balance wheel” of society, an interestingly rather Platonic conception of educational institutions as at once sorters of citizens into their proper slots and also as ideological guarantors that the noble lie legitimating that sorting process is maintained.

In this context, the very existence of the idea of a “political economy of education” is inherently threatening. Individual-players who all have fair and equal opportunities to play the game need not talk about the structuring of the game itself. What a waste of time. They need to get on with it and get into the game and try to win. Playas gon’ play!

What do you make of the effects on the teaching labor force itself?

The question of effects on the teaching labor force has an empirical component, and because that’s not my area of expertise, it’s hard for me to provide much detail. There are always lots of surveys concerning job satisfaction among teachers, motivation, morale, and the like, and also numbers on the rate and rapidity with which individuals—especially new teachers—are leaving the profession. My sense is that all these data are moving in the wrong direction, though it may be difficult to tell from surveys due to the great disciplining of labor that occurs across the board for all workers in a recession, viz., that one should above all be grateful to have a job, any job. This kind of thing tends to color one’s sense of whether one reports being “satisified” with one’s job on some survey. If the contrast is not with what the job could be but with the alternative of being unemployed and on the street, perhaps I now register as more “satisfied” than before. I will say, however, that from what I hear, the anecdotes are not good. And it’s not just that pay is low (which it chronically is) and all the policy momentum is toward attempts to casualize the teaching profession, make it more contingent, e.g., weakening tenure protections (i.e., due process protection from getting fired arbitrarily) and, especially recently, attempts by many states to rid themselves of their pension obligations that have become unmanageable due to years of mismanagement and willful neglect. Matt Taibbi has an important investigative piece on this in a recent issue of Rolling Stone.

Beneath all this, I suspect there are also even more important processes that will be difficult to detect from survey research and investigative work on reverse Robin Hood austerity. In education it is not just austerity but also the allied process of so-called accountability, which really amounts to what I’ve termed “selective preference satisfaction,” where the preferences being satisfied are narrow elite desiderata for the vast majority of school pupils having to do with workforce preparation (the optimistic case) and, increasingly, practices having to do with discipline, warehousing, and surveillance. For their own children, elites of course have a wider and richer set of expectations: art, music, sports, citizenship, sociality, etc. For other people’s children, though, the state tests of narrow bands of math and reading performance on flawed tests will suffice. Anyway, conscientious teachers everywhere understand full well that with the tightening of “accountability” screws through such federal lawsas No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and now the Common Core standards (basically getting the states to agree on accountability standards)—which are bipartisan creations—has led to a widespread “teaching to the test” phenomenon, where everyone is anxious and focused on the standardized mostly quantitative measures and only those measures.

The things that tend to draw good teachers into the profession in the first place and sustain them over the long haul—such as caring about kids (especially at the primary level) and the thrill of turning students on to particular areas like math, literature, science, etc. (especially at the secondary level)—tend to become less and less the focus. They can even become distractions from the all-important test performance. A high school English teacher, say, who senses a pedagogical window of opportunity to explore a particular author with her students will have to cut that short because “it’s not on the test.” That kind of thing. It’s easy to see all this as a recipe for a crash in job satisfaction, especially—paradoxically—for those who I think most of us would most want to retain in the profession, viz., those who are motivated by the kids themselves and by their excitement about the subject matter they are teaching. Instead, what we promote via the rewards system are test-prep drones who follow orders from admin. And none of this even touches the idea that the very best teachers, especially in challenging neighborhoods, are usually those who reach beyond the school to families and communities.

Given the narrowness and nihilism of the various testing and measurement regimes, any such activist-teachers are bound to find themselves at odds with what the neoliberal, market-based reformers are shoving down their throats. They are supposed to be excited and morally fulfilled by “merit” pay raises pegged to their students’ standardized-test performances; their mentality is to be converted to that of the Holy Entrepreneur. One just has to ask whether a creature who is fundamentally motivated by such things is really someone one wants to be teaching one’s children. The “successful teacher” envisioned by today’s neoliberal market-based reformers—including such anodyne-seeming operations as the hideous Gates Foundation, which cares just so much about children—seems actually like some sort of stunted and monomaniacal performance-obsessed monster than someone desirable as a shaper of young minds and characters.

Do you think public-sector unions really have any means to slow this trend?

The public-sector unions do still put some grit into the neoliberal machinery through the age-old tool of the strike and the threat thereof. And often the teachers unions (mostly affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association) are the ones raising demands not just for salary and benefits but for “working conditions” that are good not just for teachers but for students, parents, and communities as well. For example, advocating for fairer due-process standards for evaluating teachers can translate into blunting some of the excesses and obvious unfairnesses of the measurement/accountability regime. Essentially blaming teachers for poverty, for example. As such, the traditional teachers unions are often Villain #1 in the minds and press releases of the neoliberal reformers. So much of their agenda seems to be to break those unions. If for no other reason, then, on the principle of “the enemy of my enemy” one has to grant that there is still some power there, latent as it may be. There has been some interesting action in Chicago, for example, opposing Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s cynical and ultimately devastating policy strategies. Here I would recommend the work of University of Illinois at Chicago urban education theorist Pauline Lipman. Readers of North Star might be especially interested to consult an excellent recent special issue of Monthly Review, which includes an essay by Lipman and focuses on this very question of unions in education. The piece by Lois Weiner is especially good, too. (Perhaps I should state the obvious that one does not have to sign on to MR’s economic critique to appreciate these focused pieces.) There has of course long been debate on the left in general about unionism, syndicalism, etc., and all of this is reflected in how one approaches the promise of teachers unions. On the one hand, they can facilitate a radicalizing effect, as perhaps in Chicago, serving as a focus of activist energies to combat nefarious policies. Sort of an anti–Occupy Wall Street in this regard because they are often strategic in confronting one of the leading edges of neoliberal power. However, there is also a fundamental conservatism in the teaching ranks, and my sense is that teachers through their unions have usually been relatively easy to buy off, because really this is what unions are designed for at the end of the day: winning concessions, not challenging the mechanisms by which those concessions are made possible. One sees this with faculty unions in higher education as well. Once they get theirs with, say, a victory in a contract negotiation, it is very difficult for them to keep pushing things, advancing a critique. In the last analysis, they tend to be reactive. So when your back is really up against the wall you want the union. But once the emergency passes, the unions tend to be much less “another world is possible” and much more about preserving whatever comforts may remain in status quo arrangements. As always, the best hope here from the point of view of the left resides in radicalized breakaway segments of the larger unions who might then have outsize effects if their motivating renegade critique resonates widely enough. One thinks of stalwart left-wing “hero” unions like the U.S. West Coast longshoremen. These are people, I think, with whom to go to battle when it comes time for actual, physical confrontation.

Do you see these neoliberal reforms spreading far beyond the United States? In Mexico, where I live, there have been similar moves recently.

I think they’re already there. The underlying logic of capitalist production is too irresistible for them not to. With of course local variations. In Mexico, there’s been a fair amount of violence directed at teacher-protesters. There are some places where processes have even gone farther than here in the United States, for example, Britain, and especially England. In England at the primary and secondary levels there is arguably more obsession over “league tables” (i.e., lists of schools’ “quality” in order of students’ test scores) than here and there has been for years. I’ve visited schools throughout England, and they’re all made to be quite obsessed with this stuff. It’s often quite depressing how educators there have been made to derive “pride” in their efforts from positionality vis-à-vis other schools rather than from the students themselves right in front of them. I think in higher education they’re even further along relative to the United States in terms of applying these kinds of quantified assessments, especially in terms of the bizarre matrices they use to evaluate faculty performance.

With students, a big controversy there has been about raising the tuition fees for higher education. The amounts are almost quaint by American standards, but still, their desire to keep charging more and more shows that we are dealing with the same fundamentals here, a shift from the conception of education as public good to private commodity like everything else. There are local variations, of course, including places where local cultural traditions are more of an obstacle. I was visiting a primary school in Scotland a couple of years ago, in Edinburgh, and the Head Teacher there explained to us that yes, they test as in England, but they test students when they feel they are ready rather than en masse simultaneously. There was palpably less stress and obsession about all the tables and rankings and a sense that there was more understanding and supportiveness throughout the system concerning their efforts with children. I’d like to know more about what’s happening in places like Cuba and Venezuela, and I’ve heard some good things about the education systems there, but I don’t know enough about those countries to comment intelligently. In the United States we are officially discouraged from visiting places like that, probably for the good reason that we might get some ideas.

Will there still be a push to use credentialing as a means to forestall entry into the workplace, despite the eliminationist position taken by most policy makers?

I would predict yes, and I see the two processes as complementary. Eliminationism has to do with a “post-exploitation” environment where what once sounded desirable, viz., “post-exploitation” now is revealed as quite horrific as more and more people are rendered less and less exploitable in the traditional mode of the extraction of their surplus labor value. The current mode of credentialism represents a hollowing out of any “internal” or “inherent” aspects of the educational experience, ideally approaching a zero point where the credential is wholly fungible as a tradeable (and as I was saying earlier securitizable) commodity. Now, I don’t think this process can run all the way, though maybe I am simply lacking in imagination. Who knows? Maybe future technological developments might make it possible simply to purchase, say, the knowledge acquired in medical school and have it inserted directly into one’s brain. There are epistemological difficulties with this picture, but it’s impossible to say “never” regarding some innovation that might effect something like this or its functional equivalent—maybe many generations of refinement of cloud memory storage capabilities networked with things we can’t even imagine now. Again, who can say?

So for the sake of argument, let’s assume that “ideal” state of affairs where the credential has been “purified” from the commodity point of view. In the environment of wholesale eliminationism, the credential then becomes purely a ticket into Elysium (to reference the recent film) or whatever gated environment—literally and metaphorically—has been designated as the elite preserve. I keep thinking of the golden ticket scene in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Though given the unequal distribution of opportunity, the truly defining image is probably the scene where the obnoxious little rich girl Veruca gets her golden ticket via a mass operation of chocolate-bar buying orchestrated by her capitalist father. So what we have is the credential-as–golden ticket available by definition to very, very few. In a sense we can see this as a conceptually neat reversal of the official Enlightenment political project of universal education: rather than providing a gate of entry into the bourgeoisie and perhaps beyond, it is a gate whose primary function is to bar entrance to the mass of humanity; instead of education as an instrument for welcoming in, we have education as an instrument for keeping out. This is a key component of the post-exploitation world, where the credential-ticket places one into receivership of some more or less guaranteed rent-income stream that is structured into the very occupational position.

As I was said before about the officers’ commissions, in this sense it’s not unlike the bureaucratic sinecures arranged for aristocrats of the imperial powers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The only difference is that we are now much better at legitimation strategies, at least those that are consonant with modernistic expectations of competence and meritocracy. This is another reason the golden-ticket scene is so perfect: we cannot have just Veruca, but we need a few Charlies here and there to win a golden ticket, too, a few Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories, as legitimation. The idea of the credential is perfect for this role because of its historical provenance in meritocratic ideology—the same people, incidentally, who brought us IQ and other mass intelligence testing as, originally, an idealistic effort to overthrow inherited privilege regarding, say, university admissions, in favor of competence. Even as the game is increasingly rigged and the “winners” are fewer and fewer—to, it seems, almost a vanishing point—it’s sill your fault if you don’t make it, kid. Find those bootstraps, baby!

What if any advice would you give to an individual trying to deal with this developing educational situation?

As a philosopher, I’m not sure I should get into the business of giving advice. That almost always ends badly. In fact, if you find you are taking advice from a philosopher, I would say you should probably stop taking it. What a given person “ought to do” is simply too contextual, and one is almost always better off seeking counsel from trusted others who actually inhabit one’s immediate environment: parents, friends, neighbors, teachers, guidance counselors, etc.

In the book I explain this some. I actually take Hegel’s side against Marx on this general issue. People—and by definition activists, especially—are often frustrated by philosophers because they never are able to tell them “what we should do.” I hear this all the time. I understand the frustration. But in response, I don’t like Marx’s bluster about the point of philosophy being to change the world, etc. Hegel’s famous—or notorious, depending on your point of view—image of the Owl of Minerva only spreading her wings at dusk is more resonant for me. Philosophical critique may be useful or it may not be. I think that’s for others, the end users, to decide. I think critique is inherently worth engaging in as an aspect of our need to locate or construct meaning, just as in artistic production. In a way it’s a kind of “Good fences make good neighbors” stance. Activists should heed it especially. Activists need a critique of some sort, of course, since it is only rational as a motivating factor, but activism also needs to be praxis in the good old-fashioned sense that it an ongoing attempt at integrating theory with practice. Taking the latter seriously means in part remaining extremely wary of the philosopher’s drive for comprehensiveness, coherence, system building, and the general project of constructing a “worldview.” Activists who style themselves as a “follower” or X, Y or Z thinker or philosopher—an X-ist or Y-ist—are almost always to be avoided. In saying this, please understand: some of my best friends are Leninists, Trotskyists, Maoists, and such (to paraphrase the old joke). And they may be wonderful people and worthwhile comrades who possess all sorts of wonderful qualities. But the need for the label is usually evidence of a psychological need more along the lines of cult members. When any philosopher worth his or her salt is asked by an ingenue (as happens more often than you might think), “Who’s your favorite philosopher?,” the only proper response is a gentle attempt to reframe the question. Please don’t have a favorite philosopher! In sum, philosophy can be useful as part of the general project of examining what kind of life is worth living, but it is not reliable concerning specific courses of action. This is a category mistake.

So when it comes to understanding how things stand with education, I’m afraid I’m one of those philosophers who are chronically long on providing larger perspective and, at best, a bit of diagnostics but who are chronically short on cure. Just as, for example, ironically, despite the rhetoric, Marx himself was. However, I think this is as it should be; it is not evidence of a shortcoming for which philosophers need to apologize. So I can talk about what I see as the general dynamics, but I’m going to resist the temptation to tell individuals what it all means for their particular situations. As a matter of principle, as a philosopher, I wish to remain formally useless at the levels of strategy and especially tactics. Some will say this is a cop-out. I agree. I just think it’s a cop-out that’s necessary and justified. Like Hegel’s owl, real philosophers are always “too late.”

Are there any education trends we have not yet explored that you see as problematic or interesting?

While I think eliminationism in education is going to proceed for reasons I’ve outlined in the book, the logic of post-exploitation, etc., here are a couple of relevant internal tensions that I think may be a little surprising and are worth watching.

The first has to do with war and peace. A traditional “solution” to crises of profitability has been to destroy capital and restart the cycle of value production, as in World War II. In contemporary societies, war mobilization depends on a huge propaganda apparatus to whip the public into the right mood and otherwise legitimate the capital reset effort. Populations have shown themselves by and large easy to fool in this regard and are subject to any number of cynical wag-the-dog strategies. However, I think it’s possible that the rise of Internet—including the availability of non-traditional news sources, from blogs to podcasts to Youtube to live “coverage” of events via streaming news, Twitter, Facebook, and the like (not to mention Wikileaks and the Snowden revelations)—has led to a situation in which public opinion may not be quite so easy to manage in terms of the ongoing “infowars” (a tongue-in- cheek paraphrase of Alex Jones’s program). In this regard, it may be that Iraq is the last great war in which warmongering propaganda was so easy, the symbol here having been the breathless lapdog reporter “embedded” with the military invasion. The abortive (thus far) attempt at Syria may be a harbinger of what is to come, where it seemed that the populations, left and right, was simply not buying what was on offer. Granted, the U.S. population is war weary and the propaganda attempts were particularly lame, mostly laughably hypocritical claims about saving the children and the sanctity of international law. But it is significant that the legitimation effort stalled. I credit this as a small but significant victory for an educated population. To paraphrase Lincoln, the people cannot be fooled all the time; the population simply can’t be snowed as easily. Not that they won’t learn and get better from this failure. But it’s an interesting moment. This development is of great potential significance, I think, if it means that the traditional capital-liquidating “start-over and rebuild” solution to profitability crises is stalled. If my little premise is true that the population is now too informed for an easy slide into war—and other ways or blocked, e.g., traditional imperialism—this means that for the first time we may witness a large-scale crisis of profitability having to play itself out in a “purer” form, i.e., more according to its internal dynamics rather than being rescued by any external deus ex machina. Prediction is always fraught, but to me this would seem to mean that the ever-larger disposable “surplus” population, the permanently unemployed, including a disproportionate percentage of the rising generation, will become fated to become more restive. This may be what we are seeing globally in its various nascent forms. It is a sort of population bubble, itself made possible by augmented capitalist productivity, that can no longer be managed as before and constitutes a huge disruptive force. This may be an example of a ripening internal contradiction that is hopeful from a revolutionary point of view. There is no guarantee that the cataclysms will work in a desirable direction, e.g., we may just as easily have Golden Dawn as Syriza, but ex hypothesi things are going to be shaken up. There is no way they can’t be. Young people are simply not going to take their obvious lack of a future lying down and they will realize that the only way to win back a future is to push for radical change. So, in a way, I would say that activism directed at blocking U.S. foreign adventurism is actually one of the most radical things one can do because blocking it helps bring the structural economic tensions to the fore. Capitalism’s long-term unsustainability is made more obvious. This global outbreak of youth volatility is the ripening of a bona fide contradiction in that it represents the educated surplus, itself necessitated by the needs of a certain phase of production, transforming into a systemically corrosive element—just like needed engine parts eventually corrode through their own operation.

The second thing has to do with energy. Along with the hopefully greater difficulty of war mobilization, energy scarcity is another huge exacerbating factor that is sometimes ignored on the Left. There is a lot to say here, and I’ll keep it brief. But in the United States, our entire system of schooling—like so much else in our infrastructure—was built on an assumption of cheap and abundant fossil fuel. Look at the modern factory school: in most regions of the country, its very viability depends on a vast network of bus transport and HVAC in buildings that simply would not be usable were it not for the cheap energy inputs. With a one-two punch as austerity deepens (and this is reflected in schools’ operating budgets) and, at the same time, as fuel costs rise, we are coming closer and closer to a collapse of the public school system that about 90% of American children attend. Now, in one sense, as I argue, it will seem “easier” for elites to countenance truly draconian shutdowns of public education. However, they will soon relearn the lessons of previous elites that populations need to be controlled through institutions such as schools and that maintaining these are going to have to constitute continuing expenditures. The libertarian dream of privatizing everything reaches structural limits of social instability pretty quickly. Anyway, the collapse of the U.S. public education system is not nearly as far away as people might think, as cultural memory no longer reaches back before their ubiquity. And one of the fraying threads it’s hanging by is the availability of cheap fossil fuel. When that goes (and it will eventually—another topic, I suppose), schooling as we now know it is no longer going to be available. The collapse of traditional schooling will be disastrous for many, and so nobody should romanticize this development. But like severe economic crises generally, along with the dangers, it will present enormous opportunities for serious oppositional educators to stand in and get busy. This is why I think small-scale alternative visions of education—free schooling, for example, or various Freirean-inspired efforts—are actually potentially quite radical. They “keep hope alive” (to use a misappropriated phrase). Their very lack of scalability under present conditions turns into a saving grace under conditions of energy scarcity-driven economic collapse. Successful revolutionary groupings have typically been able to help provide basic social services, especially during times of crisis, and thereby demonstrated not through fine words but through deeds their trustworthiness and basic appeal to local populations. The NYC Occupy movement’s efforts post-Sandy are a tiny, hopeful glimpse into the kinds of initiatives that might be needed in that kind of world.

This raises a further general point about education at the individual level. As traditional modes of formal schooling weaken around us, there is already a renewed interest on the part of many in the extra-curricular acquiring of practical skills that have largely been lost to the children of the cities and suburbs (and actually those of the rural areas themselves). There are many who are acquiring basic skills, from building-related capabilities such as carpentry and plumbing to, crucially, food production–related activities such as organic gardening, chicken raising, and permaculture design. There are growing networks of such people everywhere. All this might simply be a quaint atavism, a mere aesthetic or lifestyle choice, but for the fact that aspects of personal know-how are likely to be in high demand as structural conditions deteriorate and along with them the mass infrastructure-based services upon which most of us have come to rely. I see these networks as so many conspiracies, assertions of a will to self- and community-based education that is rightly skeptical of the institutionalized credential as the bearer of all educational value. Besides, when the shit actually hits the fan, people want to turn to solid types in their face-to-face communities who possess real and useful life skills. That is basic, before anything else. If you can help me get water out of the ground or figure out how to salvage that piece of metal lying around, maybe your political ideology has some credibility. In the future, I think I may want to see a would-be activist’s tool belt and/or garden before I want to see her placard or pamphlet.

So there are a few kinds of efforts, antiwar activism in the context of economic crisis, along with alternative schooling and practical skill-acquiring in the context of energy scarcity, that are bound up with education but perhaps not in the usual ways one might think. They also are efforts that are sometimes sneered at by some on the traditional Left as “reformist” or “bourgeois” or whatever but are, I suggest—given the high potential for large-scale contextual changes in the near future—actually quite radical, even if, in terms of the consciousness of many participating in such activities, they are accidentally so.

(Originally posted here)


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