Neoliberal policies destroy human potential and devastate education
We live in an unfair and unequal world. In South Africa, as well as around the world, much attention has been focused on what has been called the “triple challenge”: job creation, poverty reduction and inequality reduction. The dominant response to all three problems is to argue for increased education and skills.
This excellent new book, Education, Economy and Society, edited by Salim Vally and Enver Motala, offers an in-depth critique of the concepts, frameworks, interventions and logic that underlie this dominant response as well as the one that underlies much of the South African education and training policy. Among its many virtues, the book offers a critique of the three basic discourses that are used to support education and skills solutions to current problems.
The “mismatch discourse” goes back at least to the 1950s. In it, education has been blamed for not supplying the skills that business needs.
It is, unfortunately, true that many children and youth around the world leave school without the basic skills necessary for life and work. But the mismatch discourse is usually less about basic skills and more about vocational skills. The argument, though superficially plausible, is not true for at least two reasons.
On the job
First, vocational skills, which are often context-specific, are generally best taught on the job. Second and fundamentally, unemployment is not a worker-supply problem, but a structural problem of capitalism. There are three or more billion unemployed or underemployed people on this planet, not because they don’t have the right skills but because full employment is neither a feature nor a goal of capitalism.
Underlying the skills discourse is the “human capital discourse”. In the 1950s and earlier, the neoclassical economics framework that underpins capitalist ideology and practice could not explain labour. Although the overall neoclassical framework was embodied in mathematical models of a fictitious story of supply and demand by small producers and consumers, it was not clear how to apply that to labour, work and employment.
Instead, in that era, labour economics was more sociological and based on the real world, trying to understand institutions such as unions and large companies, and phenomena such as strikes, collective bargaining and public policy.
The advent of human capital theory in the 1960s offered a way to deal with labour in terms of supply and demand (mostly supply), as a commodity like any other. This took the sociology out of labour economics. Education was seen as an investment in individual skills that made one more productive and employable.
Although this supply-side focus is sometimes true, it is very partial, at best. That is, abilities such as literacy, numeracy, teamwork, problem-solving, critical thinking and so on can have a payoff in the job market, but only in a context where such skills are valued.
The more useful and important question is the demand-side one, usually ignored by human capital theorists, regarding how we can create good jobs that require valuable skills. The human capital discourse also ignores the value of education outside of work.
In fact, contrary to the hype, the human capital discourse, and offshoots of it – such as the knowledge economy – has been one of the most destructive ideas of this century and the one before.
Finding a solution to the triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment has been unproductively directed towards addressing the lack of individual skills and education instead of focusing on capitalism and other world system structures – whose very logic makes poverty, inequality and lack of employment commonplace.
Underlying the human capital discourse, most directly since the 1980s, has been the “neoliberal discourse”. This is tied to neoclassical economics. From the 1930s to the 1970s, in various countries, a liberal neoclassical economics discourse predominated. This discourse recognised some of the inequalities inherent in capitalism and argued the need for government interventions as a corrective.
With political shifts exemplified by Ronald Reagan in the United States, Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Helmut Kohl in Germany, a neoliberal neoclassical economics discourse took over, which argued that capitalism was both efficient and equitable, that problems were generally minor, and that the source of any problems was too much government interference.
This discourse has gone beyond economics and has political, social and cultural dimensions. In education, the upshot of neoliberal discourse has been to ignore the problems faced by public schools and to promote market solutions through private schools, vouchers, charters and the like.
Skills and human capital are central to many of the chapters in Vally and Motala’s book, and a critique of neoliberalism forms the context for their analyses. Although the left is often criticised, falsely, for an economic determinism, the book points out how the right, in the discourses above, practices its own version of economic determinism: education leads to skills, skills lead to employment, employment leads to economic growth, economic growth creates jobs and is the way out of poverty and inequality.
The book shows in great detail the failures and disingenuousness of the arguments of the right in casting the blame for education and development problems. Mismatch, human capital and neoliberal discourses first and foremost blame individuals for their lack of “investment” in human capital, for their not attending school, for their dropping out of school, for their not studying the “right” fields, for their lack of entrepreneurship.
The only solution is education
If you hold neoliberal views, the only legitimate solution to the triple challenge is education, other than removing government from any “interference” in the market. That is, if you are a market fundamentalist, it is illegitimate for government to do anything. Neoliberals even look upon government-sponsored education with suspicion; hence the call for privatisation, vouchers, charters, merit pay, and so forth.
But blaming education, as Stephanie Allais and Oliver Nathan say in their chapter, is a “con”, that is, a scam, a ploy. John Treat, in his chapter, quotes Marc Levine: “Put another way, there’s a strong ideological component behind the skills gap [argument]: it diverts attention (and policies) from the deep inequalities and market fundamentalism that created the unemployment crisis, and focuses on a fake skills gap that had nothing to do with the surge in joblessness.”
Human capital theory and neoliberal economics are examples of what has been called “zombie economics”. Treat quotes John Quiggin’s explanation of zombie economics: they are “beliefs about economic policy that have been ‘killed’ by evidence and analysis, but somehow, like ‘zombie ideas’, keep coming back’.”
For the right, the value of education is reduced to economics. This fundamentally contradicts the essence of education, a refrain throughout the book. In fact, the book is dedicated to and opens with a quote from Neville Alexander to this effect and it is worth repeating part of it here: “Once the commodity value of people displaces their intrinsic human worth or dignity, we are well on the way to a state of barbarism.”
A dual system of education
A global view shows how, with capital freely mobile, we are faced with a planetary-wide reserve army of the unemployed and underemployed that keeps wages down, workers insecure and unions weak. In education, everywhere, there are schools for the rich and very different schools for the poor. This is hardly acknowledged, let alone challenged.
Neoliberal capitalism is also racialist capitalism, patriarchal capitalism, plutocratic and monopoly capitalism. The left has been caricatured as having a conspiracy theory understanding of capitalism’s operation and motives. Long ago most of the left rejected the need for a conspiracy. World system structures maintain capitalism, racialism, patriarchy and so on. But I wouldn’t reject the idea of collusion out of hand. What else is the World Economic Forum but a meeting of the global, dare I say, ruling elite in an undemocratic forum to decide on global policies? Nowhere, of course, does the right see the inherent problems in the structure of capitalism nor even recognise neoliberalism. After the fall of the Soviet Union, right-wing books proclaimed the end of history, the end of ideology – we now had the one best system and we just had to tinker with it and wait for prosperity to sweep the globe.
Well, how long are we willing to wait? While millions are suffering and dying and the rich get obscenely rich at the expense of the rest of us? It has become commonplace to recognise that capitalism has increased material production and wealth – even Marx did – but production for whom? Wealth for whom? The most obscene statistic I’ve heard is that the 85 richest individuals on the planet have the same total wealth as the poorest 3.5-billion people on the planet.
Can capitalism be tamed?
Can capitalism be improved, be fair and just? I am not clairvoyant, I can’t see the future. I have liberal, even progressive, colleagues who believe that capitalism can be tamed in the broader social interest.
I wish it were so, but I don’t think so. The greed and inequality promoted by capitalism, the racialism and sexism and environmental destruction that capitalism takes advantage of and promotes are extraordinarily resistant to change. Governments, captured by elites and by the unequal logic inherent in our world system, can only with great difficulty offer significant challenges.
But Education, Economy and Society goes well beyond the failure of current discourses and realities. Throughout, chapter authors consider alternative perspectives and policies that may move us in more progressive directions.
These include the need for and existence of what editors Motala and Vally call “vital and vibrant” social movements to challenge world system structures. Sheri Hamilton situates her chapter on worker education in global movements: anti-globalisation, the Arab Spring, Occupy, the Indignados in Spain, anti-austerity in Europe, strike waves in South Africa – and I would add the earlier anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the US, the women’s movement around the world, the landless movement in Brazil, the Dalit movement in India, and many others.
I teach a course called Alternative Education, Alternative Development, which focuses on what to do from a critical progressive perspective, and I would like to close by adding to the list of alternatives above.
In terms of development:
● We can be inspired by the potential for democratic electoral politics, despite its limits, to bring half a dozen Latin American countries left, progressive governments;
● Even limited gains are valuable. For example, some say South Africa has the most progressive constitution in the world and some say Brazil has the best child legislation in the world. In both cases, they are far from making it a reality, but it still represents progress and can be – and is – a focal point for struggle; and
● We can build on experiments with alternatives to business as usual around the globe in the form of co-operatives, worker ownership and workplace democracy.
In terms of education (I know Latin America better than Africa):
● In Brazil, the Citizen School movement has built a sizeable democratic, participatory, Freirean-based education system in a number of places inside and outside Brazil;
● In Venezuela, Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution instituted a large-scale Higher Education for All system; and
● In Brazil again, there are the Landless Movement schools, founded by some of the poorest people in the world – often living off agricultural labour, now organised and politically influential – with a large system of very participatory, democratic, Freirean-based schools.
I don’t mean to romanticise any of this. This is a struggle over the long haul and the outcome is uncertain; but, as I said, I am optimistic. I am optimistic because of the examples above. I am also optimistic because I was fortunate enough to attend the World Social Forum in Brazil twice and to march with 100 000 activists from all over the world. I met some of those who are struggling to change the world in areas such as education, health, food, water, environment and development.
Steven J Klees is professor of international and comparative education at the University of Maryland, US. This is an edited version of the address he will deliver on July 22 at the launch of Education, Economy and Society, co-edited by Salim Vally and Enver Motala and published by Unisa Press