The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame

David Blacker makes a powerful case that in the present phase of capitalism, our rulers are abandoning the previous era’s principle of universal education

David J. Blacker, The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books 2014), 308pp.

If you have ever suspected that Michael Gove and flesh-eating zombies have something in common, David Blacker’s new study of neoliberalism supplies a plausible explanation. He suggests they are both symptoms of a decaying capitalist system that is now locked into a terminal doom loop. Gove personifies an ideological tendency within the ruling class that is determined to commodify and privatise any aspect of the public sector that is not nailed down. Popular culture’s obsession with zombies represents a subliminal anxiety within the elite about how to cope with the ever-expanding hordes of downtrodden and dispossessed who are the victims of this reactionary crusade (p.194). These are only two of a wide-ranging and subversive set of observations by the author that collectively provide a radical and compelling critique of current social policy in the US and Europe.

Blacker’s specific focus is on education in the Western states but his contextualisation also includes hard-hitting analyses of political economy, environmental degradation and socialist strategy. The book is written in an erudite but witty style that leaves the reader with the clear and distinct impression that the next few decades will decide the fate of the human race. Blacker ominously warns us that the current global hegemony of the capitalist order presents most of our species with a grim choice: ‘we are subject to the harsh survivalist disjunction – we will have to kill it before it kills us’ (p.19).

Blacker’s assessment of our ability to come out on the other side of this impending crisis is ultimately a negative one but he does not rule out the possibility of an undefined ‘existential event’ (p.13) delivering the promise of global liberation. His pessimism could have the effect of disabling an activist response to the challenges of our era, but it also serves as a useful antidote to the unthinking optimism that has sometimes blighted the rhetoric of the left in previous eras. Blacker provides a salutary warning that we may not have experienced the worst that capitalism can throw at us: ‘they could lead us down into something backwardly atavistic like neo-feudalism or something new or worse’ (p.58). His synthesis of political micro-analysis with millennial macro-analysis represents an innovative attempt to construct what he describes as a ‘Marxist eschatology’ (p.16).

The latter term is traditionally associated with theological discussions about the nature of the end of the world; the biblical Book of Revelations being the best known example in the West. Blacker contends that the current economic crisis of the system, originating with the crash of 2008, means the term can now usefully be appropriated for Marxist analysis. The potential apocalypse in this context refers not to supernatural intervention but to the operation of the laws of motion of economic development. The title alludes to Marx’s classical explanation of capitalist crisis as being rooted in the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF). Blacker recognises that this theory is not universally accepted even within the ranks of contemporary Marxist economists but his advocacy of it is grounded on the basis of probability: ‘I will content myself with a weaker and more defensible claim than is advanced by some of the theory’s proponents: the TPRF matters and if it is not the reason capitalism is morphing into the death spiral neoliberal phase, it is surely a reason’ (p.24).

Blacker provides an admirably lucid exposition of the TRPF (p.63). In Capital, Marx theorises that profit is rooted in the surplus value created in the process of production by the labour of the working class. The bourgeoisie constantly aspire to intensify the productivity of labour by investment in labour-saving technology, which, together with raw materials, forms constant capital as Marx terms it. The consequently increasing rates of productivity mean that correspondingly less labour – or variable capital (wages) – is required by the system.

Marx’s core concept of the labour theory of value argues that only variable capital can generate value. Hence there exists a long-term tendency within capitalism for declining surplus value to be produced as a ratio of the total investment by the bourgeois class; the organic composition of capital is steadily rising, as Marx expresses it. As there is less surplus value being created it follows that the rate of profit must fall. Contrary to some of  Marx’s critics, Blacker stresses that this pioneering formulation in no way contains a  guarantee of  the inevitable collapse of the capitalist system: ‘As Marx explains in the original articulation of the TPRF, massive counter forces such as monopolization may keep the gravitational downward pull on profits at bay almost indefinitely’ (p.76).

The author further contends that the neoliberal project that has been initiated by the global capitalist class since the 1980s represents one of these countervailing strategies that can off-set the TRPF, potentially indefinitely. Blacker identifies four key components of this project: deploying globalisation as a means of undermining public sectors in the Northern hemisphere and slashing working conditions in the South; encouraging credit bubbles to delude ordinary citizens into thinking they have a stake in the system; promoting the financialisation of Western economies as a means of avoiding the rising organic composition; and fourthly, deploying military force against any regimes that might wish to defy this global order (pp.26-7). Blacker is dismissive of the liberal remedy that regulation of greedy individuals would be sufficient to curtail the excesses of neoliberalism. As he puts it, ‘decrying such individuals would be, as they say, like handing out speeding tickets at the Indianapolis 500. They speed because they have to’ (p.27).

The penetration of this ideology into global political practice has resulted in the implicit adoption by elites of what Blacker calls ‘eliminationism’ (p.103). This neologism has been devised by some Holocaust scholars to define the attitude of the Nazi leadership to European Jewry in World War Two. Initially, the policy of the Third Reich was for the intensive exploitation of Jewish labour, but as the pressure of a militarised economy grew after 1939, the agenda was escalated towards physical extermination. This may seem to be a hyperbolic framework for analysing education policy in the twenty-first century but Blacker spells out the comparison. We are now in a situation ‘in which elites no longer find it necessary to utilize mass schooling as a first link in the long chain of the process of the extraction of workers’ surplus labour value. It has instead become easier for them to cut their losses and abandon public schooling altogether’ (p.103).

As an American academic, Blacker identifies this agenda as the basis for the massive problem of student debt in that country. The US ruling class have arrived at the conclusion that educated and skilled graduates are surplus to requirements in the neoliberal phase of capitalism. Globalisation means that sector of the workforce can increasingly be supplied from overseas on a cheaper basis; and by saddling American students with crippling personal debt, the public funding of higher education can be shrunk significantly.

Blacker notes that in 2012, US student debt was over $1 trillion, which was more than the total for credit card debt. He grimly states: ‘There is almost no escape from this iron cage that has been carefully refined by our banking overlords and puppet politicians … a system of government-backed mass peonage, a kind of debt bondage with copious historical analogs’ (p.132). Having already alluded to the Nazi ‘endgame’, Blacker is here inviting us to draw a comparison between the predicament of students in the US today and another notorious example of state terror: slavery in the antebellum South. Half-jokingly, he posits that some form of Lincoln-style military occupation might be the only method of ending this economic bondage: ‘In the name of the UN, perhaps it is time for the blue helmets to roll in and to cordon off our universities … before they sell off still more unsuspecting 18-year olds into lives of unremitting debt bondage’ (p.133).

Blacker’s focus is on the US but his highlighting of this dimension of higher education applies with equal force to the UK. The two major British political parties have both abandoned the postwar principle of free university tuition and as result students here find themselves saddled with debt of up to £9000 per year. The notion that this does not act as a deterrent to a sixteen-year-old considering higher education is ludicrous but is now the standard mantra of Gove and his ilk. An even more egregious example of this commodification of the system that Blacker could have referred to is the growing trend of students appealing to ‘sugar daddies’ to fund their study. The potential for exploitation in these cases does not need to be spelt out.

The marketisation that is well underway in the American and British school sectors is also explored by Blacker. Teachers have become wearily accustomed to relentless pressure from above to pursue quantitative targets and conform to centralised orthodoxies of classroom practice. Both aspects of this neoliberal agenda are disguised as drives to raise standards but, in fact, have the combined effect of undermining the enjoyment of education, both for pupils and teachers.

Blacker makes a powerful argument for the notion that this phase of capitalism has abandoned the principle of universal education that was a cornerstone of its previous incarnation. He notes how the dynamics of capitalist development in the West from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth required the cultivation of a workforce educated to a high level. This contextualisation of educational policy in the framework of wider socio-economic factors is one of the strengths of Blacker’s approach. As he puts it in a striking image: ‘schools are still an integral organ within capitalism’s respiratory system, rising and falling in rhythm with their encompassing chest cavity’ (p.192).

He persuasively argues that as the system has now entered a new era of crisis it is rejecting its previous commitment to what in Britain was known as the comprehensive ideal. The ruling class now no longer needs a significant layer of educated professionals with a commitment to the public sector ethos. In the period after World War Two, that was necessary in order to reconstruct devastated social and economic structures. Blacker baldly states that the neoliberal version of capitalism also definitely no longer desires the working class to be encouraged to raise their expectations: ‘what capitalism gave, capitalism also hath taken away. Just as the era of universal schooling began with massive changes in the plate tectonics of capitalism, it is now beginning to recede in accord with further changes within those same tectonics’ (p.199). Gove’s recent suggestions that writing lines, picking up litter and mopping floors be restored as appropriate school punishments would seem to indicate Blacker is right to detect this new mind-set among the elite.

As a critique of education policy in contemporary capitalist states, Blacker’s analysis is powerful and stimulating. But there is a serious problem with his proposals to avert the impending calamity -fundamentally, that he doesn’t have any! The only strategy he can offer is that the forces of anti-capitalist resistance adopt a mentality that he describes as ‘Marxist fatalism’ (p.232). This amounts to little more than modest altruism within our personal and workplace groupings: ‘just try your best to be kind and at least to not be an asshole’ (p.229). This is not without merit as an ethical injunction, especially as we are frequently surrounded by individuals who are apparently incapable of understanding it. But as a means of averting the slide towards the apocalypse it is pitifully inadequate.

Even worse than this tepid quietism, Blacker dismisses the notion that educators can play any role in the transformative wave of opposition he clearly wishes to see: ‘education activism does not matter and is a waste of time’ (p.223). The author has usefully reminded us of the constraints capitalism places on the education process but he underestimates the ability of teachers and students to spark significant resistance within the current system. The student protests in the UK in 2010, the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012, and the role of NUT activists in the UK this year are just the most recent examples of the ability of committed sections of the left to go far beyond Blacker’s ‘compartmentalized pessimism’ (p.245) and fight for an ‘existential event’, or what we might less euphemistically call ‘the revolution’.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters