The scholars taking the lead for tonight’s session were Peaceful Warrior and Yaroslav. They had suggested that we read Liberal Readings on Education, a collection of papers edited by Stefan Melnik and Sascha Tamm, translated by Ritu Khanna 2008, published by Ideas on Liberty in Berlin.
This was an unusual reading for SSC classes as it was written by economists who favour neo-liberal economics.
We started with a short quotation from the book, something Hayek (1899 – 1992), the guru of free market economics, had said about education: ‘ Inflated education opportunities harbour the danger of creating an “intellectual proletariat” which will entail unpleasant political consequences.’
We thought a bit about what that might mean, without coming to any conclusions. It sparked a debate about the meaning of liberalism and neoliberalism. Liberalism promotes the sovereignty of the individual against the state, promoting the notion of freedom from constraint, as well as the right to chose. This is contrasted against forms of society where choice is thought to be constrained, e.g. socialism. Then we looked at the difference between liberalism and neoliberalism. Classical Liberal thinkers, like Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), accept the importance of the economy as a form of social regulation, but maintain that there are other reasons why people chose to lead their lives, not least for moral and ethical concerns. Neo-liberalism, on the other hand, maintains that all social life is subordinate to the power of markets and money.
We all agreed that Liberalism and Neoliberalism are political and economic theories which need to be taken seriously, rather than trivialised as propaganda or ideology. Being very clear about our relationship to these ideas is important, not only because they are the hegemonic concepts of our age, but also because they appear to be so appealing and seductive. Who isn’t for freedom!
One of the group had ‘an extreme reaction’ to the reading, not least because none of the authors were women, and because of the reactionary nature of what she was reading. Nevertheless she was not against having had to read it.
Peaceful and Yaroslav produced a paper where they set out the meaning of mainstream education. One of the useful aspects of the paper was that it gave us a sense of the historical development of education.
A key question was how can we who live in a world dominated by liberal thinking be critical of liberalism and neoliberalism. The question was raised as to what extent the Social Science Centre is part of this liberal hegemony, a form of free school outside of the state system ran entirely by volunteers. Is the Social Science Centre not a form of social activity promoted by the Big Society?
Someone said part of the problem is that the principles we espouse as being radical, e.g., equality and democracy, are liberal principles and have already been achieved. In the capitalist world equality is found in the principle of universal suffrage and our rights as citizens and legal subjects. The work of Jodi Dean, e.g., Democracy and Other NeoLiberal Fantasies, was suggested as someone who throws light on all of this. She argues that in order to overcome liberal thought we should be fighting not for democracy or equality, but the abolition of capitalism.
The point was made that we are only able to consider equality as a universal human right because we live in a profoundly egalitarian society. In the modern capitalist world hierarchy is not the dominant principle, people do not obtain their position based on who they are: their personhood, but on their ability to work and to make money. Money is the universal equivalent and possession of money renders people equal. In the UK even the Royal family must go to work, and appear to be good value for money. The Monarchy is an exception to the general rule of equality: a ‘feudal relic’ with extraordinary powers which must be abolished. A part of these extraordinary powers is the imposition of equality on the rest of society (Seamus Milne Guardian July 2013).
In contemporary society money and the capitalist state are the organising principles which bind all human relationships together. Other forms of human relationships do exist in many complex ways, and people suffer repression due to reasons of race, gender and poverty, but none of that undermines the power of money and the value and values which it represents. Money is not just an economic device, nor is it the only reason or measure or motivation for why people behave and take action, but money is the supreme form of social power: an essence that cannot be ignored, either as a theoretical or practical political issue. At the root of these discussions are the relationship between Marxist social theory and other post-structural perspectives. The group took some time to make sure that others in the group were not getting lost or overwhelmed by the discussion.
To aid our understanding the group is developing a Glossary of key words. This week we are definitely adding the words ‘hegemony’ and ‘proletariat’.
The mood lightened when reference was made to William Morris’s News from Nowhere, a book about a Utopia, written at the end of the 19th century which imagined a Socialist alternative to capitalist society.
We enjoyed listening to different interpretations of this important book. Morris had been one of the first people in England to study Marx’s critical political economy and had lectured on it, finding a way of getting beyond a liberal critique of liberalism. Reference was made to a biography about Morris: Romantic or Revolutionary written by another English Marxist, E P Thompson. Thompson describes Morris’ turn to Marxism in Morris’ own words as ‘crossing the river of fire.’
This led us to having utopian thoughts about education and what alternative radical forms of teaching might look like. We discussed the difference between education and learning: education was regarded as constrained learning, to learn skills to get a job, whereas learning was much more open ended an involved learning about learning; even a form of spiritual emancipation. Someone mentioned Steiner education, and the very different model of human life and education on which it is based. We talked about the principles and practices of Steiner education and why people like Steiner get described as a ‘mad genius’ without fully exploring the nature of his work, and taking it seriously.
This set us up nicely for next week’s session on alternative forms of education to be led by Gary and James.