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Predatory Capitalism’s Impact on Public Education

January 29, 2018

As readers of this blog realize by now, I am an avid reader of articles that discuss economics and political science. This morning I read a compelling essay by Eudaimonia blogger Umair Haque with the unsettling title “How America Collapsed” and a subtitle “What Happens When You Replace a Society with a Market?”. Most of the essay deals with the subtitle… and what happens when you replace a society with a market is NOT a pretty picture. In Mr. Haque’s telling of America’s story,”…a once thriving political economy collapsed like a black hole: into a place of absolute totalist nihilism.” Why?

The story I have told in recent essays is that stagnation, by inflaming old tribal and racial wounds, allows fascism to rise, in a series of authoritarian moments, reaching to the heights of power in a society. A failing social contract causes people to give up on the very democracy that cannot provide it, turn on their neighbors, and claim whatever is left of a dwindling society for themselves — and thus every catastrophe of human possibility ends in a contest over the purity of blood and race. This cycle is precisely the same in America as it was in Nazi Germany, and that is why the parallels feel eerier every day now — from ethnic “bans” to immigrant detentions to neo-Nazi marches.

But what causes the lack of a working social contract? Well, the unforgiving truth is that both sides of a polity must fail for people to give up on democracy, and turn to strongmen instead, rejecting democracy, civilization, and enlightenment in favour of authoritarianism, barbarism, and a childlike need for safety. The “sides” fail in different ways — but oddly, those ways are historically precisely the same. Simply put, the right fails to stand for conserving, and the left for liberating

Mr. Haque explains how each side in America failed: the right sought to “drown government in a bathtub”, which would, in turn, lead its citizens to turn to “…strong-men, mafias, and thugs” while the left “…gave up any interest in providing average, everyday people the basics of a good life, or of moderating the gain of winners” 

Both the left an the right DID agree on one principle, however: that markets can solve all of the problems that face society. Mr. Haque writes:

Markets are seen to be the cure-alls for every kind of social ill, challenge, or issue — the last, best, and only ways to coordinate every last aspect of human thought, action, effort, or ideas. Therefore, predatory capitalism — for there are many kinds of capitalism, but this one is a totalist ideology, which leaves no room to breathe, no space for consideration, no chance for anything else at all — was quickly applied to every sphere of life, from healthcare to education to energy to finance, and it was quickly assumed to be history’s final endpoint. But how can a social order and a social contract exist if everything is a market?

The short answer is: “it can’t”. Here’s an elaboration from Mr. Haque:

Markets are just one kind of social organization. A healthy society is made up of many others — whether civic organizations, great public institutions, or just families and communities. Markets maximize profits. What do these other kinds of organizations exist to maximize? …They maximize things that are worth more: trust, meaning, purpose, dignity, belonging, lifespans.

… Corporate profits have never been higher — since records were kept. But the well-being of Americans has been shattered like never before in modern history. Even Costa Ricans have longer life expectancies. All of Europe lives longer, healthier, happier, saner lives. No other society in all the world has regular school shootings, an over-the-counter opioid epidemic, and shrinking real incomes. These are not coincidences, misfortunes, anomalies — they are cause and effect, two sides of a coin. Markets did what they do: maximized profits — but only at the ruinous expense of a catastrophe of human possibility.

So how to public education as we know it today contribute to this? It strikes me that both sides did nothing to help public schools overcome the impact of the market. The right’s Southern Strategy effectively thumbed its nose at the Supreme Court’s decision that schools needed to be integrated with all deliberate speed and pushed back against LBJ’s civil rights and anti-poverty legislation. The left, in the meantime, “…gave up any interest in… moderating the gain of winners“, which meant when President Reagan used “Welfare Queens” as the basis for shredding the safety net and the first President Bush used Willie Horton as the basis for incarcerating increasing numbers of African Americans, the left “…gave up any interest in moderating the gain of winners”. Instead the left elected a President who used his criticism of an African American musician (Sister Souljah) and a pledge to “End Welfare as We Know It” to get elected.

But the left’s abandonment of the principle of “moderating the gain of winners” and devotion to market-based solutions came in the early 2000s with the passage of NCLB and the implementation of RTTT. Instead of using federal leverage to provide supplemental funding for disadvantaged students attending public schools in disrepair, the left decided to punish those students by taking away their schools from local control in the cities and turing them over to private enterprise. In the end, public education as it existed in the 1970s has collapsed as well: it is no longer capable of “moderating the gain of winners” because the notion of integration, funding equity, and any form of compensatory education has gone out the window and been replaced by… markets-in-the-form-of-charters-and-choice. And as for-profit schools governed by faceless shareholders replace public schools governed by elected officials, democracy dies along with equal opportunity.


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