Wednesday, 21 May 2008

What could go wrong?

I will leave to the Weekly Worker the general story of the ramshackle Reclaim the Campus! conference organised by Alliance for Workers Liberty student front Education Not for Sale. Suffice to say, the organisation was qualitatively transformed from the AWL plus a handful of punky anarchist types plus a couple of slick greens into...the AWL plus a handful of punky anarchist types plus a couple of slick greens plus Revo. (Don't think any putative future Trotsky's going to be penning three volumes on ENS, somehow.)

The whole thing is set up to be thoroughly uncontroversial (though AWL majority types, fond as they are of daisy-cutters and 'surgical strikes', will no doubt be moderately irked to see written into the "new", "improved" - ok, it is an improvement - ENS's founding statement a clear call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Somewhere on capitol hill, a Texan is shitting himself, I'm sure), and indeed the first session of the day was a painfully agreeable "workshop" on "the marketisation of education".

I mean, seriously.

Get a bunch of student leftists into a room, no doubt not stupid people, with interesting and unique opinions that deserve to be tested against one another, and the first session may as well be called "why neoliberalism is, like, shit". What could go wrong? Who could disagree with that?

Well, busters, first there's the title. Marketisation of education? Is that even a word? I suppose it is, presumably meaning the introduction of markets into an economic activity where previously there were none, or fewer. But it's not at all clear that this is what's happening to education at all. Loads of things are being privatised, but that's not the same thing. It's perfectly possible for a gang of state bureaucrats to transform themselves into private owners without so much as a whiff of the market appearing anywhere in the process. Most of Blair's ghastly initiatives to hand the school keys over to dodgy evangelists and used car salesmen, after a brief and pseudo-competitive tender process, result in epically-long-lasting contracts and a n effective monopoly over insert-suburb's secondary education.

This is not to say there are no markets. School dinners are generally supplied by the lowest bidder, for instance. And top-up fees was an abortive attempt to introduce a limited kind of market among higher education institutions (which is likely to become much less abortive next year). But the transformation that is taking place - the agenda's advertised title, referring to neoliberalism, was closer to the mark - is a more general thing, organically and intimately tied by a thousand threads to the objective interests of capital in the 21st century. In places, it involves the sprouting of markets - but in a great many more, it is embodied in the failure of markets, long-term franchises, and massive extension of state intervention.

The problem with NUS, contra Sofie Buckland (whose opening, the first of three, was mostly concerned with the esteemed student union), is not that it's run by a bunch of bastards. It's that it's structurally doomed to be run by a succession of bunches of bastards, and sits in a special place in the late-capitalist social formation reserved for organisations to be run by bunches of bastards. Talking about "marketisation" actually misses the fundamental feature of neoliberalism - the contradiction between the rhetoric of market and choice and the objective necessity of intimate state funding, management and regulation of all "marketised" enterprises. It's a declassed, blind and ideological approach. (But hey, it keeps that nice Aled fellow on board, so who cares?)

There's more nitpicking to be done yet, don't worry. What about second platform speaker Tom Unterrainer, "NUT activist" (is anyone just an XYZ activist? No, of course not, and one can read countless articles by Comrade Tom on...the Workers Liberty website!)? He described, accurately enough, an increasing tendency towards directly instrumental education - A-levels in Tesco studies and so on. He appeared to be pining for the loss of "education for its own sake", the gloriously pointless humanities, the simple beauty of a well-differentiated trigonometric equation...Of course, if you put it to Tom directly, I'm quite sure he would agree that it's never quite been like that. Still, this is an assault, and since Tom is not a liberal, we assume it is an assault on a hard fought gain of the working class.

But he's wrong. It's not. The hard-fought gain of the working class is that there are schools for them at all, and that there are secondary schools, and opportunities for A-levels, and - who knows? - university...The curriculum, even (if not especially) in its less functionalist forms, is cut to measure for the ruling class. The kids learning to be Tesco cashiers today may once have been (for example) reading Shakespeare. I would rather read Shakespeare than learn what button will put through a portobello mushroom, but one does not have to be overly cynical to deduce the highly significant ideological content of the old fashioned approach.

It ultimately goes back to Matthew Arnold who, realising that the bourgeoisie was a pack of dreadful philistines and the proletariat actually developing a culture far in advance of its immediate superiors, immediately undertook to recommend the inculturation of both classes into an awareness of their proper place in the National community. Arnold was mostly concerned with the Great Tradition of English Literature, but it was not a stretch for the humanities to give their own tory-englander spins on the theme. Geography was about maps (of the Empire)...history was about chaps (of the Royal variety).

Indeed, one of the interesting side effects of the transformation/instrumentalisation of the curriculum is the death of "maps" and "chaps". Policy-makers are more interested in testing "useful" skills - it is no longer in their interests to bore children to tears with the tale of which Henry did what, but rather to do source analysis on any source worth analysing. The total regimentation of the educational process, its orientation towards successive waves of exams, has as its corollary the reconstruction of content into abstract pseudo-commodities, one as good as another. This trend is repeatedly excoriated in the tory press, who yearn for the return of culture, of shakespeare, maps and chaps. They cannot see the wood for trees - or rather, the wood is in their interests, but the trees are foreign breeds, offensive to their tastes.

Lastly, academic Sarah Motta told us about the neoliberalisation of academic departments. Much of this was uncontroversial, the same sort of stuff that Alex Callinicos, in one of his more lucid moments, detailed in his nice little pamphlet Universities in a Neoliberal World. But again, there was a tic of inaccuracy - the slightly po-mo-inclined Motta insisted that the effect was to reinforce traditional class-race-gender heirarchies in the academy. But this does not square up with the positive explosion in this period of gender studies, ethnic and race studies (and the kaleidoscopic variety of specific-minority disciplines), queer theory, postcolonial theory, subalternity, yada yada yada.

It is not that traditional heirarchies - which, let us be clear, is straight WASP males running everything - are being reinforced as such. It is rather that the real social forces clamouring for liberation of this or that group are bein undermined by the promotion of specific, disarming, discourses about them. Identity politics is a positive manoeuvre of bourgeois power to inoculate itself from the dangerous, revolutionary energy these issues carried forty-odd years ago. It pulls minorities towards itself, all the better to throttle them.

The point of this exercise is not that Sarah Motta's incomplete perspective is a pernicious influence on the left, or that Tom Unterrainer should not involve himself in fighting the Tescofication of schools, or that the difference between "marketisation" and "neoliberalisation" as theoretical paradigms for viewing developments in education is a fundamental political dividing line (as if the AWL is short on those). Rather, it's a diatribe against "obviousness" in political discourse. The choice of the cosyest imaginable topic for this "workshop" not only deprived activists of a precious hour of their lives that could have been spent talking shop on what the new ENS was actually to be: it also allowed serious theoretical errors to slip in under cover of "obviousness", and the chummy and anecdotal style of debate that followed the openings merely exacerbated the problem. Comrades, let's fight! It's more fun, and far more educational for all concerned.

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