Capitalist Realism and Education
Education has been at the heart of what I have called capitalist realism. What the function of education is, how it is to be funded, how students understand themselves, the way that teachers and lecturers are trained and inspected: all of these processes have been changed out of all recognition in the last thirty years by the culture of capitalist realism.
Put simply, capitalist realism is the belief that there is no alternative to capitalism – that, in Fredric Jameson’s phrase, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Yet to describe capitalist realism in such terms can be misleading. For capitalist realism is defined more by the apparent disappearance of politics than by any sort of positive political belief. It refers to a situation in which capitalist social and commodity relations have become naturalised to the point where they are invisible.
If there really is no alternative to capitalism, if capitalism occupies the limits of what can be imagined (and everything that can be imagined is capitalist) then the very name ‘capitalism’ ceases to have any reference. The question becomes: capitalist, compared to what? One of capitalism’s great advantages is its mutant adaptability, its improvisational capacity to thrive in many different cultural settings. Since 1989, the choice has no longer between capitalism and communism, but between different forms of capitalism (liberal, authoritarian, theocratic . . .) What is perhaps surprising is that, five years after a major crisis of capitalism – a crisis that is no sense resolved – social democratic capitalism remains an impossibility in those countries dominated by neoliberalism. Instead of a rolling back of neoliberalism, capital has, with breathtaking audacity, used the crisis to further embed and extend the neoliberal project of destroying solidarity and social security. The success of neoliberalism was premised on the idea that social democracy was not sustainable, not ‘realistic’ – and the crisis has not got anywhere close to forcing capital into giving this conviction up.
Capitalist realism is typically exhibited less in grand beliefs about political economy than in the behaviours we are compelled to engage in at work. It manifests itself in a fatalistic acceptance that, since pay and working conditions will inevitably deteriorate, since we are ‘lucky’ to have a job at all, then we must acquiesce to practically any demand that management imposes on us. It also manifests itself in the language that we are now required to use – a language derived from business but which long since infiltrated all forms of work, including public services (and in the terms of the new language, the very concept of public services has an archaic feel).
Over the past thirty years, teachers have found themselves increasingly subject to this new language and to its massively proliferating bureaucracy. They have been required to ritualistically affirm the platitudes of the new business language, while completing more and more bureaucratic meta-work: log-books, continuing personal development, performance reviews. Meanwhile, lecturers in higher education are subject to the highly bureaucratic Research Excellence Framework, which rates their ‘output’ as researchers. Here, on the face of it, is one of the paradoxes of neoliberalism. Didn’t Thatcher and her fellow neoliberals promise to liberate us from the red tape of bureaucracy? Why, then, do teachers and lecturers find themselves entangled in more bureaucratic processes than ever before? The answer is that it was only a certain kind of bureaucracy – that which regulated capital – which neoliberalism was interested in dismantling. While capital gained more freedom, workers – particularly workers in public services – found their autonomy eroded.
The public service worker is no longer subject only to external, centralised bureaucracy, with its periodic inspections and assessments. Instead, bureaucracy becomes immanent to work itself, a continuous process to which workers themselves must contribute via practices of self-surveillance. The result is a massive increase in anxiety, with increasing numbers of teachers suffering from stress-related illnesses.
The role and status of the student has also changed. The new language has encouraged students to see themselves as ‘consumers’ and education as a commodity – a commodity that they are increasingly expected to pay for themselves. In his book Kettled Youth, Dan Hancox went so far as to say that the student protests against the imposition of increased university fees in 2010 shattered capitalist realism. While the student protests – the first real outbreak of militancy in the UK since the financial crisis of 2008 – certainly constituted a challenge to capitalist realism, they were in no position to defeat it. Instead, university students find themselves the anxious bearers of heavy debts, while crazed neoliberal ideologue Michael Gove seeks to convert as many schools as possible into quasi-privatised Academies.
We must must continue to assert a purpose for schools and universities that goes beyond the needs of business for a supply of passive consumers and cheap, compliant workers. (Even this might be an overly optimistic view of what capital wants from students now. In his bleak new book, The Falling Rate of Learning, David Blacker argues that, from capital’s point of view, much of the population is effectively surplus now that it no longer needs workers in the massive numbers it once did.) But it is long past time that teachers and lecturers pushed back against the wasteful and oppressive bureaucratic forces which sap our energy, demoralise us, and restrict our professional autonomy. The trade unions’ favoured tactic of the one-day strike alienates many potentially sympathetic members of the public while doing little to reverse the decline in teachers’ status and working conditions. We need to think more inventively about forms of industrial action – such as withdrawal of bureaucratic labour – that will disrupt the managerialist take-over of the education system.