In his Republic, Plato analogized elites to guard dogs who must be educated as to whom they must guard against and whom they must protect. One of Plato’s nightmare scenarios was a ruling class that lost the ability to make this distinction and turned wholly predatory on its sustaining population. Enter our present-day banking overlords, who have built a neoliberal machine that forces them into a “smash and grab” strategy of maximum short-term gain at the literal expense of everyone else’s future. And despite #OWS and others finally turning public attention upon them, they are not done yet. In some sectors, in fact, their work is just beginning.
What we are left with now is an all-out assault on anything in the system that might still have a little exchange value. Monster movie-like, we are now witnessing the full unleashing, to borrow Matt Taibbi’s famous image, of the neoliberal banking vampire squid, using its “blood funnel” to sniff out money in previously less accessible precincts such as schools, pensions, infrastructure, public health and safety — anywhere, really. All that is solid is liquefied and sucked up into the blood funnel, to be consumed by the megabanks, who perform no function whatever except a kind of super rent collection, a permanent life-destroying tax on all forms of human activity. Truly, to recall one of Marx’s most famous images, this is vampirism par excellence.
Education is an irresistibly tempting victim, bleeding but still with enough blood for a few good meals. As during the Soviet economic collapse, where public assets were directed into private oligarchs’ hands, we are now witnessing in our schools what David Harvey describes as “accumulation by dispossession,” a neo-enclosure movement of neoliberal privatization, where previously public assets are transferred over into the private, death-dealing hands of the vampires. Granted, this has been occurring for some time now, but absent alternative investment options, this process is really ramping up. As with the British tuition fees crisis, it is time for American education to get ready for its close-up.
What used to be “our” public universities are among the first elite predator takedowns. Explicitly abandoning their land-grant public service missions, our great public universities are now “public” in name only as they receive, at best, only a small and ever-diminishing percentage of their operating funds from public sources. This has been a creeping decades-long process, and it has come to be one of neoliberalism’s gaudiest crown jewels. Big State U. was not put up for sale at auction one fine day, but its “publicness” has been bled out of it over several decades. In what ways are these contemporary universities “public” anymore? In what ways do they stand for anything other than themselves and their corporate donors? Indeed, they seem no more “public” than does Microsoft or J.P. Morgan Chase. Indeed, as we have now learned, they cause a greater amount of indebtedness even than credit cards, via the unpayable student loans that keep the whole system afloat. To think it was once thought that the “long march through the institutions” was to be accomplished by the left!
Similar processes have been playing themselves out in K-12 public schools through charterization, voucherization, and also direct subsidy to private (including for-profit) schools. The accumulation by dispossession/enclosure pattern is simple: divide and conquer. What was once held in common must now be privatized so as to be forced into the individual “entrepreneur” mode, only with the “deeper pockets” of a whole school or school district. Insert blood funnel. Locate next victim. Repeat.
This process of redistribution upward — one-sided class warfare from above — operates of course in a vast scale and is hardly limited to education. It includes the sale of public lands and resources; persistent privatization schemes involving pensions and, ultimately, social security; health care; and even formerly sacrosanct public preserves such as prisons, the post office, and the military. This is the neoliberal period of capital in all its fetid glory: the ruthless marketization of everything existing — including itself, in the sense that the marketization is itself marketed as, among other things, “natural,” “fair,” “win-win,” “progress,” and other empty signifiers. The marketing of marketization has been so successful, though, that at this point, as Slavoj Zizek famously remarks, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Yet as productive energies are sapped through financialization, neoliberal elites seem to be doing a better job of disabusing the rising generation of their illusions than even the best left political agitators. As they bloated themselves and their own families to the bursting point, the 1% forgot just one small detail: the 99%, and especially their children, need a sense that they have a future, something for which to hope; they need a sense of a future in which it is possible to create, to produce, to do something real that has meaning. Young Americans by and large no longer dream of making things anymore; those that still dream are led to dream largely of wealth by maneuver, that is, positioning themselves “to get paid” within whatever bubble paradigm happens to be in place at the moment they are credentialed (and if all else fails, there’s the lottery). As jobs that actually produce things fled overseas, the “best and the brightest” young talent of the last generation was stampeded into Wall Street to assist predatory megabanks in their financial exsanguination of the rest of whatever productive sectors still remained. Joining this junior cadre of F.I.R.E.-sector predation had increasingly become the only road to riches for the credentialed. But even this is ending: even the apprentice vampires have fallen on hard times. And they too have massive student loans.
There will be political pushback at various points along the way, but one should fully expect the corporate takeover of vestigial public assets like the public school system to proceed apace. There are very few places left for the rent-seekers to go. (The military is another vast treasure house, but private contractors already hold a huge sway there.) Admittedly, public schooling remains a hard nut to crack, owing to the fact that it is harder to fool people about their own children’s actual experiences. To counter parental common sense, what we could expect here is a coalition aligning salivating ideological and venture privatizers with short-term egoists among taxpayers, e.g., those without children in the local public schools who do not see why they should support “someone else’s kids.” The deal will be that the taxpayers get to pay less (the privatizers will still need taxpayer money to make the scheme lucrative, on the model of defense contractors) but then the school budgets can be squeezed enough so that sufficient profit can be skimmed off the top. (These processes are well described in two separate recent Monthly Review pieces by John Bellamy Foster and Pauline Lipman.) Nominal educational “progressives” and assorted technophiles may sign on as well, celebrating the overthrow of the bad old “factory model” of schooling in favor of a brave new world of networked student-consumers, the processing of whom can be scaled much more efficiently: larger batches with far fewer teachers.
Political battles surrounding these “reforms” will play out differently as a function of regional political cultures, most likely resulting in a patchwork of privatization schemes that ranges from the partial to the near-complete. On the whole, the U.S. education system should be expected to revert to its original pre-industrial pattern of regional differentiation; the quality of a child’s school will depend a great deal more even than it already does upon where that child lives. The old colonial pattern of neglect of common schooling in the South (and private tutors for elites) and a relatively stronger common school commitment in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast should reassert itself (where the West Coast and Upper Midwest count among the latter camp and the inland West among the former). On the whole, though, decades of rhetorical deconstruction of public schooling will finally start to give rise to severe and sustained actual deconstruction. What remains to be seen is how much successful public resistance there will be (e.g., #OWS) to the managed money-bilking schemes that seem so depressingly foreordained.
As always, there are internal contradictions with this neoliberal strategy, some of which could be quite explosive. Once it becomes even clearer that little other than test-taking is becoming possible within school walls, that massive and chronic unemployment has rendered educational credentials increasingly irrelevant for one’s life chances, and that the primary telos of public schools has become warehousing and surveillance (for those who have not already dropped out), the situation of youth stands to become explosive and unpredictable. The recent Parisian banlieue and London riots probably presage the general model: victimized youth with no future who turn self-destructively violent, thereby giving the (shrinking) credentialed and employed — and whiter — classes further reason to “crack down” harder, cycling the system downward to levels of social chaos we have not yet experienced. It is indeed hard to envision how this “discipline and punish”/”law and order” mentality can ultimately succeed, at least without massive levels of direct and physical oppression, the likes of which modern people are unlikely to find palatable. The role of a free press, including social networking, is crucial here, as prohibiting elites from hiding the casualties in this coming war on “disposable” urban youth will provide perhaps the best barrier to an all-out onslaught. It is important to remember that, when the propertied classes are actually threatened, they will fight back to maintain their privilege. It is going to get uglier.
David Blacker (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches philosophy of education at the University of Delaware. He is the author of Democratic Education Stretched Thin: How Complexity Challenges a Liberal Ideal (SUNY) and Dying to Teach: The Educator’s Search for Immortality (Teachers College Press).