In capitalist societies such as ours, there are hidden contextual rules in our understanding of poverty and its relationship to education. They hide that fact that the struggle for better schools and the elimination of poverty must include the struggle for a democratic socialist alternative to capitalism. This is likely to sound provocative to the official guardians of capital and to those unwitting sentinels of feral commerce who feel there is no alternative to the flawed capitalist system that we have, except perhaps to grovel in the presence of that unquenchable vampire who continues to gorge on the lifeblood of those who least benefit from it’s existence. Since I work in the Division of Urban Schooling, I therefore propose that we begin with the obvious question that needs to be asked in all of our graduate programs of education: “What constitutive limits does capitalism place on urban school reform?”
In my experience, such a question proves uncomfortable to many educators who prefer not to deal with the unbearable fact that there may indeed be better alternatives to organizing our economic life than capitalism. Are there not, after all, serious structural limits to educational reform imposed by capitalist social relations? What are they? Shouldn’t this be the first consideration that we pose in all of our educational work, regardless of our personal political affiliations? Conservative colleagues are predictably intransigent on this issue. But when I try to raise this issue with progressive liberal colleagues—who see income redistribution as a favorite demulcent for soothing the ravages of structural exploitation and who call for the construction of endogenous development under a more humane life philosophy as a means of convincing the capitalist class to treat workers more compassionately—I am often told it should be an issue taken up in specialized courses such as critical pedagogy. I am advised that it is not something that the program should address in the main. Here my liberal colleagues only participate in the reality they criticize, becoming parasitical upon what they negate and thereby reproducing the very system that they are attempting to remediate, while at the same time pacifying the trauma of class antagonism.
While discussing capitalism in graduate programs in education is hardly forbidden, to my knowledge it rarely occurs. This strikes me as odd in light of the fact that we not only live in a capitalist society, but most societies around the world are impacted profoundly by transnational capitalism. One reason for this is obvious: any alternative to capitalism appears to be socialism or communism, two historical formations thoroughly discredited. While the totalitarian dictatorships that called themselves communist deserve our derision, I remain convinced that a socialist alternative to capitalism still remains a worthy goal, and perhaps our only alternative to the barbarism of capital (I regret that I do not have time in this short blog note to discern the emancipatory potential of socialism).
We live in an era of neoliberal capitalism or unregulated, casino style, speculative capitalism that creates laissez-faire economic conditions by means of unfettering the economy or freeing it up by removing barriers and restrictions to what entrepreneurs and corporate or business actors can accomplish in order to maximize profits. We hear this echoed in terms such as broadening the tax base by reforming the tax law, limiting protectionism, removing fixed exchange rates, privatizing state-run businesses and deregulating the economy. But a more comprehensive definition of neoliberalism would include the idea that neoliberalism is a total, universal form of social organization bolstered by a total life philosophy based on the ideal of competition and the marketization of everyday life. The result—for-profit charter schools, voucher programs, NCLB and Race to the Top have created a non-market underclass who dwell in a bottom-tiered netherworld of super-exploited labor that serves those of more fundamental worth to the social order: the more ‘successful’ capitalist class.
Neoliberal capitalism is like a vampire tying its wings to the smiles of the poor, carrying its unsuspecting victims to their doom. Capitalist social relations take on a certain form of value in which human relations take on the form of relations between things. It is this form that needs to be abolished and this can only be done through the abolition of value production, that is, through the abolition of capitalism.
Unfortunately this logic, this insidious logic, will odiously continue to shape archetypes of citizenship promoted in our schools, as long as we remain ensepulchured in capitalism’s law of value and structures and relations of domination—economic, political, social, cultural and epistemic.
Hedge fund managers and CEOs have become rabid advocates for market reforms which are driven by the desire to create a less expensive teaching force, one that is shackled by narrow-minded test-based accountability measures, and one that has less union power to fight back. Federal education mandates have moved away from supporting equality of access and outcome and have focused instead on cutting back on school funding, on promoting shame and blame policies, on merit pay or on firing school staff, and on supporting standardized tests based on common core standards which have little to do with the production of critical, meaningful knowledge and problem-solving.
We know that US students who attend schools that are well-funded score as well or higher than students from other countries in international tests. Yet all too often the struggle for educational equality masks the fact that the US has one of the highest percentages of children in poverty of all the industrialized countries. We also know that children from poor families and that attend underfunded schools score below the international average.
So it is clear that poverty is not only a problem but the problem. We make matters worse when we adamantly refuse to let poverty be addressed other than in the language of ‘socioeconomic disadvantage’. That term itself suggests that it is natural for some people to be poor and some people to be rich, and undresses poverty in such a way that the process of exploitation is leeched out of it. Which is why we need a Marxist approach to class struggle that can uncover the basic causes of poverty in contemporary capitalist society.
I want to make the general argument that the elimination of poverty should be our goal as much as, if not more than, creating equality of access and outcome through educational reform policies. Yet conventional wisdom holds that educational reform is the best way to create job opportunities for the poor. Certainly school reform is a necessity, but education has only a limited role to play in reducing economic inequality. We need the state to attack inequality through more direct policies.
I also want to argue that the greatest impediment to educational success and prosperity is inequality. The solution to educational reform and the quality of social life in general in the US is more economic rights that are not attached to educational reform.
John Marsh makes the case that education should be treated as a political—not a market—phenomenon and I agree. Clearly, we need social programs and non-educational interventions into the market. Some of these could include, for instance, redistributive tax rates, massive public works projects, a living wage law, or a renaissance of labor unions. But it seems clear that more workers with college degrees will not stem the rise of low-wage jobs nor will it reduce inequality. We can’t use educational programs per se to reduce inequality, because this just won’t work in a capitalist economy.
Part of the reason that the US is one of the most unequal countries in the world is that we have limited economic rights. The ruling elite maintains that our main vehicle for economic success should be connected fundamentally to our right to a decent education. But this is a dishonest ploy, I believe. As Marsh argues, we need more economic rights and every right we have must have an independent status, such as the right to a useful and remunerative job, the right to adequate food and clothing, the right to a decent education, etc. In the United States, education is seen as a requirement for all the other rights, and it is assumed that once you are given the right to a good education all the other rights will take care of themselves. This is a flawed assumption. You can’t make these rights dependent upon one another or an outgrowth of one another. They must remain separate. Marsh notes that the US does not generate many more poor people than other countries. European countries achieve lower poverty rates because they provide more social programs aimed at the poor and unemployed. Without government programs, Sweden would have 26.7 of its population living in poverty, but with their social programs, the poverty rate is 5.3 percent. To be sure, education helps some people enter the labor market, and indirectly might create a few more jobs, but what we need is direct job creation, higher wages, and better redistribution programs.
Marsh notes that among children whose parents have identical levels of education, those children who lived in unequal countries performed worse on tests of adult literacy. Children of parents with college degrees in general perform the same, whether they live in Finland, one of the most equal countries, or the US, one of the most unequal. But children in the US whose parents only attained high school will perform worse on literacy tests than children in Finland whose parents only attained high school degrees. This is because economic inequality affects the quality of family life, in areas of health, security, rates of substance abuse, etc.
Education has been made the only available means of addressing injustices that arise from economic disparity, and this to me constitutes one of the worst crimes of capitalism. As a social policy solution to economic exploitation, it is entirely enfeebling.
The biggest prohibitive obstacle to organizing the left is to develop confidence that an alternative to capitalism can be made viable. Socialism won’t succeed unless it has a socially viable universality, that is, unless it embraces the most developed areas of the world, including if not especially in the United States. Well, what can critical educators do to make this happen? That’s not an easy question to answer. But it’s not easy to live in the world as it is presently fashioned, either, so we’d best get to work on finding some solutions.
John Marsh (2011). Class Dismissed? Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Equality. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Peter McLaren is Professor of Education, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. His recent books include the co-edited volume Revolutionizing Pedagogy: Educating for Social Justice Within and Beyond Global Neo-liberalism (Palgrave Macmillan).